Focus Groups

Compiled by:
Stefanie Keller (seecon international gmbh), Juri Lienert (seecon international gmbh)

Executive Summary

In a focus group discussion, people from similar backgrounds or experiences (e.g. young women, young men, handicapped, elderly etc.) are brought together to discuss a specific topic related to water and sanitation issues. Focus groups can be used in Sustainable Sanitation and Water Management as an instrument to involve people in the decision making process. It gives specific user groups (in particular marginalised groups) the opportunity to express their interests and to incorporate the opinion of every stakeholder into the decision-making process. Focus groups are useful to apply in order to get a better understanding of differences in perspectives and of factors which influence opinion and behaviour regarding water and sanitation issues.


In a focus group discussion, people from similar backgrounds or experiences (e.g. young women, young men, handicapped, elderly etc.) are brought together to discuss a specific topic related to water and sanitation issues. A skilled facilitator assembles representative groups from the community and creates an atmosphere where individuals feel free to express opinions openly on topics that concern them, e.g. that are related to water and sanitation (see also facilitators role). The facilitator is armed with key questions, but the conclusions emerge from the groups open discussions and lead to ideas for action (IRC 2010).

What Are the Differences between Focus Groups and Surveys?

(Adapted from ETR n.y.) 


Focus Groups


  • Provide depth over breadth
  • Use small samples and the findings cannot be generalised
  • Enable the agency to ask a variety of questions and explore the answers as they arise
  • Generate rich, complex ideas and are difficult to analyse
  • Provide breadth over depth
  • Require large samples and are more readily generalised
  • Are standardised but do not allow the exploration of answers in depth
  • Can be relatively simple to analyse but yield less rich data


Needed Material

A range of materials including tape recorders, if appropriate, and pictures to introduce topics for discussion, can be used – however, in practice, recording is often not needed and it is sufficient to note down salient points. Recording the discussion on tape has the advantage of being able to play it back and pick up salient points after the discussion is over. The disadvantage is that transcribing from tape takes a long time. Even then, important points may be missed if the tape recording is not accompanied by detailed notes on who the participants were, the order in which they spoke, and the non-verbal language which accompanied what was said (ALMEDOM 1997).

In any case, the important contents should be recorded in writing. It is ideal if one person is in charge for the recording and one person facilitates. It is often good to use a blackboard, coloured cards, or a flipchart to write down important points – like this, the participants can react if you misunderstood something.

Steps in Conducting a Focus Group

(Adapted from THCU 2002)

1 Clarify Purpose

The step clarifies the rationale for conducting a focus group, the issues and population of interest and identifies who is interested in the focus group results. This step is important in ensuring that the focus group technique is the appropriate methodology and will guide the development of the moderator’s guide and recruitment procedures.

The following questions should be answered in this first step:



2 Assess Resources

This step explores the resources you have available so that you can design an evaluation that will be within your budget. Assessing your resources allows you to evaluate which resources you have available “in house” and which you will need to contract out. The evaluation of resources is crucial to ensuring the questions you want to address can be answered within the project’s budget (see also budget allocation and resource planning).

Following questions should be answered in this first step:


  • What external resources will you need?
  • Which in-house resources can you make use of?


3 Decide on Methods and Procedures

There is no set rule for the number of focus group sessions needed. Two groups is generally the minimum. Ideally, you want enough groups to ensure that you have not missed any information. If after a three or four groups similar themes are emerging with no new themes coming up, additional groups may not be necessary.

Focus groups usually range in size from 8 to 12 participants. With regards to group size, it has been found that the number of ideas generated is not increased by increasing the number of focus group participants. The ability to obtain useful information will be enhanced if an environment is established in which participants feel comfortable and free to express their ideas and opinions. Depending on the issue under discussion, a more homogenous group may be preferable in order for participants to feel comfortable.

Following questions should be answered in this first step:


  • What is the total number of groups needed?
  • What is the desired composition of the groups?
  • Which are important stakeholders that should not be missed?


4 Write a Moderator’s Guide

A moderator’s guide is the outline of the discussion, which is to be carried out during the focus group. Writing the guide involves deciding on all topics to be discussed and organising them into a logical format for discussion. A moderator’s guide that is well-written and developed jointly by the moderator and stakeholders is crucial to ensuring that the moderator is able to collect the desired information from the participants. The questions included in the moderator’s guide will flow from the issues you want to explore and the questions you want to answer. The number of questions is usually limited to ten to twelve well-developed questions for a two-hour focus group. The number of questions is influenced by the topic, the specificity and detail required and the characteristics of the participants. Focus on the ‘need-to-know’ questions and leave the ‘nice-to-know’ questions as options if there is enough time remaining at the end. A moderators guide is not a questionnaire, so it should not be cluttered with detailed questions. The questions should be general in nature with suggested probes that could be used to stimulate discussion and elicit details (see also facilitation).

5 Recruit Focus Group Participants

Participants must be carefully recruited and represent the target population that you are trying to study. The importance of recruiting focus group participants cannot be underestimated. Failing to carefully and thoughtfully recruit participants (e.g. also opinion leaders, decision makers etc.) can introduce a bias into the results which are obtained from the group. If the right people are not recruited for a focus group, the information generated may be useless (see - to get some input - selection of participants).

6 Logistics of the Focus Group

There are a number of activities and details to be organised and coordinated which will increase the effectiveness of the focus group. Provision of the proper physical location is mandatory. The location should be central, easy to find, and allow participants to feel comfortable and relaxed. Focus groups should be scheduled for times which are convenient for participants (e.g. after work). Refreshments, such as snacks and drinks should be provided to participants in an attempt to make them feel comfortable and make their experience as pleasant as possible (see also logistics).

7 Facilitate Focus Group

The moderator plays an integral role in the conduct of the focus group. While there is a prepared guide for the discussion, the moderator is essentially the ‘instrument’.

The moderator’s role in facilitating the focus group involves:


  • creating a supportive climate that encourages all participants to share their views
  • building a rapport with participants
  • covering important questions and topics from the prepared moderator’s guide
  • facilitating interaction among group members
  • interjecting probing comments, transitional questions and summaries
  • determining how participants feel about ideas/opinions expressed by others
  • managing time


8 Analyse Outcomes

Analysing the data consists of objectively reviewing the transcripts/notes and identifying the main points or themes, which answer the original evaluation questions. This step is important because it organises the information collected and summarises the information so that it can be interpreted. When an audiotape is used to record the focus group discussion alone, transcription of the data from the tapes is required. Regardless of whether you have a computer application or are doing the analysis by hand, there are two basic parts to the analysis of focus group data. The first part involves segregating and organising the data into logical and meaningful segments. These segments usually follow the moderators guide’s questions or subdivisions. The second part in the analysis is interpretive and involves developing criteria for organising the data into useful groups (themes). This is sometimes referred to as coding.

Transcripts are often not required if you are not working in a scientific environment. You can also uses your notes / flipcharts for analysing the data. In any case, it is recommendable to do the analysis as quickly as possible after the meeting, as your memory of the event is still fresh.

9 Interpret and Disseminate Focus Group Results

Interpreting the focus group results is done in order to answer the original questions that were posed for the evaluation. It allows you to draw conclusions. Interpreting the results of the focus group is one of the most crucial steps in the process of ensuring useful findings which accurately reflect the opinions and views of the participants involved and answer the original questions. It may be useful to discuss your interpretations with your colleagues to avoid biases.

10 Take Action!

 Schistosomiasis Research Group 2004

Focus group discussion in Booma village, Uganda. Source: DEPARTMENT OF PATHOLOGY (2004)

Taking action refers to implementing the changes suggested by the results of your focus groups. It is important to take action and implement changes in order to make improvements to your program/service/product.

Tips and Recommendations for Facilitating a Focus Group

  • Be mentally prepared for the session; you will need to remain alert to be able to observe, listen, and keep the discussion on track for a period of one to two hours.
  • Make sure you arrive at the agreed place before the participants, and be ready to greet them.
  • Maintain a neutral attitude and appearance, and do not start talking about the topic of interest before the official opening of the group discussion (see facilitators role).
  • Begin by introducing yourself and your team (even if the participants have already met them individually), and ask participants to introduce themselves.
  • Explain the purpose of the meeting clearly. Tell them that you are not looking for any right or wrong answer but that you want to learn what each participant's views are. It must be made clear to all participants that their views will be valued.
  • Be aware that single persons are not dominant and push the discussion in a certain direction, and try to moderate this.
  • Bring the discussion to a close when you feel the topic has been exhausted (ALMEDOM 1997).


Focus group discussions are appropriate to conduct when you want to explore the depth and nuances of opinions regarding an issue, and whish to get people’s opinions. Furthermore, it is useful to apply focus groups to get a better understanding of differences in perspectives and factors which influence opinion and behaviour (ETR n.y.).

It is worthwhile to conduct one focus group for each interest group. Homogeneous samples are preferred because mixing age/gender groups may inhibit some people, especially women, from expressing their views. However, if one has a limited time frame, it is possible to conduct stakeholder interviews with heterogeneous groups to get insights from different perspectives.

You should not use focus groups when you need to ask sensitive information or when you are working with emotionally or politically charged groups. In addition, focus groups are not appropriate when you cannot ensure confidentiality or when you want people to come to a consensus (ETR n.y.).

Focus groups should not be used for quantitative purposes, such as the testing of hypotheses or the generalisation of findings for larger areas, which would require more elaborate surveys (IDRC 2003).


  • To explore the range of opinions/views on a topic of interest
  • To explore meanings of survey findings that cannot be explained statistically (ALMEDOM 1997)
  • Can generate focused insights more quickly and generally more cheaply than through a series of key informants or formal social surveys (MSP RESOURCE PORTAL 2009)
  • To involve stakeholders with different perspectives and to get a deeper insight about their interests and needs
  • Is an appropriate tool for topics and issues with a wide range of perspectives and interests, as it is often the case in water and sanitation management
  • You can collect opinions of more than one person in one session and the interaction between group participants can result in increased elaboration on a topic and broader insight into understanding an issue (THCU 2002)


  • Findings are not always representative, as the sample can be very small
  • Findings are dependent on the composition of the group – a focus group is just as good as their participants
  • Needs some experience and expertise from the moderator – a focus group discussion is just as good as their moderation
  • It may be risky to use focus groups as a single tool. In group discussions, people tend to centre their opinions on the most common ones, on ‘social norms’ (IDRC 2003)
  • In case of very sensitive topics, focus group discussions may also have their limitations, as group members may hesitate to air their feelings and experiences freely (IDRC 2003)
  • Potential for participants to influence one another’s opinions (IDRC 2003)
  • While focus groups provide the researcher with in-depth responses to their questions, this type of data is more difficult to analyse than quantitative data (IDRC 2003)
  • The quality of the information collected is dependent on the skills of the moderator (IDRC 2003)

References Library

ALMEDOM, A.M. ; BLUMENTHAL, U. ; MANDERSON, L. (1997): Hygiene Evaluation Procedures: Approaches and Methods for Assessing Water - and Sanitation - related Hygiene Practices. London: International Nutrition Foundation for Developing Countries (INFDC).

ETR (Editor) (n.y.): Conducting Focus Group Discussions. Scotts Valley: ETR Associates. URL [Accessed: 16.09.2010]. PDF

GIBBS, A. (1997): Focus Groups. Social Research Update. (= Issue 19). University of Surrey. URL [Accessed: 16.09.2010].

IRC (2010): Focus Groups. The Hague: International Water and Sanitation Centre. URL [Accessed: 15.08.2010].

MSP Resource Portal (2009): Multi Stakeholder Processes: Focus Groups. Wageningen: Wageningen UR Centre for Development Innovation. URL [Accessed: 15.08.2010].

THCU (Editor) (2002): Using Focus Groups. Toronto: The Health Communication Unit. URL [Accessed: 17.04.2012]. PDF

RIETBERGEN-McCRACKEN, J.; NARAYAN, D. ; WORLD BANK (Editor) (1998): Participation and Social Assessment: Tools and Techniques. Washington: World Bank. URL [Accessed: 10.05.2010]. PDF

DEPARTMENT OF PATHOLOGY (Editor) (2004): Shistosomiasis Research Group. Cambridge: Division of Microbiology and Parasitology Department of Pathology (University of Cambridge). URL [Accessed: 02.04.2012].

Further Readings Library

Reference icon

RIETBERGEN-McCRACKEN, J.; NARAYAN, D. ; WORLD BANK (Editor) (1998): Participation and Social Assessment: Tools and Techniques. Washington: World Bank. URL [Accessed: 10.05.2010]. PDF

This resource kit aims to share information and experiences on participatory methods in the context of development cooperation. The primary focus concentrates on providing practical guidance and case examples.

Reference icon

GRUDENS-SCHUCK, N. (Editor); ALLEN, B.L. (Editor); LARSON, K. (Editor) (n.y.): Focus Group Fundamentals. Departments of Agricultural Education and. Iowa City: University of IOWA. URL [Accessed: 10.05.2010]. PDF

This article reflects focus group discussions from a scientific point of view. It provides advantages and disadvantages of the use of focus groups as a research tool.

Reference icon

IDRC (Editor) (2003): Designing And Conducting Health Systems Research Projects: Volume 1 Proposal Development and Fieldwork. Module 10C. FOCUS GROUP DISCUSSION. PDF

This website describes the characteristics of focus groups and when to use this technique, containing many real-life examples. Furthermore, it explains the strengths and limitations and how to conduct a focus group.

Reference icon

THCU (Editor) (2002): Using Focus Groups. Toronto: The Health Communication Unit. URL [Accessed: 17.04.2012]. PDF

This handbook provides a detailed guideline how to conduct focus group discussions.

Important Weblinks [Accessed: 27.05.2010]

This website is essential in providing introductions to project and program management, as well as providing a quick selection of key resources in relation to specific areas of the Logical Framework Approach.