Focus Group-based Public Engagement

This post was originally contributed to the Isotope repository on 14th August 2008 by Eric Jensen at the University of Warwick and has been reposted here.

Dr Eric Jensen, University of Warwick

Dr Eric Jensen, University of Warwick

Activity description
Traditionally used by market researchers and social scientists to identify a range of interpretations on a topic of interest, focus groups have recently been adapted by at least two independent teams of public engagement practitioners with the aim of generating dialogue about robotics and health. This article describes the mechanics of planning, design and moderation of focus-group based public engagement events, making reference to these two cases, which were evaluated as part of the Isotope project.

The evaluation of these two case examples of focus group-based public engagement is intended to afford readers a further indication of whether this approach may be useful for their purposes. Overall, the most consistent finding from both case studies is that focus group-based public engagement yields a high level of audience participation, with participants almost unanimously indicating that they felt able to actively contribute their perspectives.

Focus groups are currently used in a number of professional domains, including market research (e.g. to glean [potential] customers’ views on a product) and qualitative social science (e.g. examining participants’ perspectives on a particular topic). This article dilates upon the use of focus groups as a method of engaging publics with issues that have a scientific and/or technical dimension. Focus group-based public engagement provides an opportunity for participants to discuss specific topics, such as news reporting of newly-published science or a scientific controversy, in an informal and supportive environment, using their own concepts, frames of reference and vocabulary (Kitzinger & Barbour, 1999). This provides public engagement practitioners with the opportunity to draw out what participants do know about science, as opposed to an emphasis on knowledge deficits (Holliman, 2005).

Focus group set-up (sticky wall; educator packets; brochures; writing utensils and materials)

Focus group set-up (sticky wall; educator packets; brochures; writing utensils and materials)

A key role within the focus group is the ‘moderator’ or ‘facilitator’, who provides topics or specific questions for the discussion, facilitates the interactions between participants (which sometimes requires intervention – at other times to judge when not to intervene) and ensures that all have the opportunity to participate. In this article, I use the focus group-specific term ‘moderator’ and the more general term ‘facilitator’ interchangeably.

Planning and organisation

To conduct a focus group-based public engagement session you will require at least one moderator and one or more groups, each with between 3 and 12 participants (typically between 6 and 8). If you are moderating a focus group for the first time it would be advisable to work with a smaller group of participants.

Once you have organised the structure of your groups (see below), you can run as many sessions as are deemed necessary based on the project goals or practicable based on available resources.

The moderator should be trained in facilitating group discussions and be comfortable with receding into the background as much as possible during the course of the focus group interview. It can also be useful for an inexperienced moderator to attend other focus groups, either as an observer, or a participant.

1. General issues

1.1 Planning

You need to begin planning for your focus group event approximately 4-6 weeks in advance, in part in order to secure your desired venue and allow time for advertising, and recruiting and briefing of participants.

There is no particular time of year that is best for this activity. The focus group may be a one-off event for each set of participants, include a follow-up session (e.g. 6 months later), or involve a series of linked groups over a defined period (e.g. once a week for a month). It might also tie in with other activities to form a package of linked events. Indeed, a recurring public engagement focus group could over time convert into a self-sustaining discussion group along the lines of a book club or a cafe scientifique.

1.2 Topic Selection

Although there is no specific limitation on the topics that could be addressed in a focus group, high-profile scientific issues that have received recent attention via news media may provide a useful focus. Alternatively, a topic may emerge from localised issues, such as the citing of a new research facility.

If you are addressing a less well-known scientific topic, you will need to provide enough information at the outset of the focus group to stimulate interaction and discussion, and/or to invite participants to bring along materials that they feel are relevant. Alternatively, as in the case examples discussed below, a media programme or extract can be played at the outset as a stimulus to focus the group discussions to follow.

Controversial issues (e.g. abortion or animal experimentation) or sensitive issues (e.g. sexual health, or recreational drug use) should only be introduced after careful deliberation on the part of the organisers, and participants should be effectively briefed. It is also recommended that controversial topics should be discussed under the moderation of highly experienced facilitators and with a clear set of ground rules put in place at the outset of the discussion. This is particularly important as participants may disclose personal information that they have not previously discussed in public.

2. Participants, skills and requirements

2.1 Where?

The key requirements for the physical environment of your venue are:

  1. a single large table or an assemblage of tables capable of accommodating all participants
  2. an environment that allows everyone at the table to be able to hear each other
  3. a venue that will allow at least water, but ideally hot beverages as well as pastries or other snack foods
  4. toilet facilities.

Focus groups typically last at least a couple of hours, so numbers 3 and 4 are essential for maintaining the focus of your participants by ensuring they are not unduly distracted by physical needs.

2.1.1 Venue Option 1:

Quiet location with dedicated participants. People are either required to book a place in advance or the advertising designates a fixed location that is separate and apart from any other activities.

2.1.2 Venue Option 2:

A focus group-based public engagement event could be usefully conducted in a more familiar and social setting such as the back room of a pub, a side room in a café, or a family home. Such locations lend a naturalistic feel to the proceedings, encouraging a relaxed conversational environment. Such informal venues allow for diffuse boundaries between participants and normal customers, but moderators need to be confident that background noise will not be a problem.

2.1.3 Video Equipment:

There is little evidence that focus groups can be effectively conducted online or via other communication technologies. As such, this is a relatively ‘low-tech’ activity, and does not require special computer equipment or electronic devices. However, both of the case examples discussed in this article used media clips at the outset as stimulus material. This requires a screen and projector, as well as a conducive physical and acoustic setting. As such, the organisers in these case studies selected Venue Option 1.

It may also be desirable to video the interactions of participants during the focus groups if a permanent record is required. The recording of participants should be discussed at the recruitment stage and formally agreed as any recording will fall under the requirements of data protection.

2.2 Who?

A focus group-based public engagement event could involve one group up to a virtually unlimited number of groups, depending on the availability of resources, facilitators and audiences. Focus groups typically involve between 3 and 12 participants per group, although for the purposes of public engagement 6 to 8 per group would be good numbers to aim for.

Participant selection will depend on who you would like to engage and on what scientific issue. However, think very carefully before introducing differing levels of expertise into any particular group. If certain individuals are viewed as significantly more knowledgeable or ‘qualified’ on a given topic, it can stifle the conversation as participants defer to her or him on each discussion point. Although this potential problem can be counter-balanced if the focus groups are structured around a focus on participants’ experiences rather than institutionally recognised forms of knowledge. This was the approach taken in Case Study 2, Listen to me, I’m a patient. Their emphasis on experience was mostly successful in immunizing the groups from undue influence by what could be considered ‘official’ experts within the group (e.g. a pharmacist and a chemist were both participating in a group that was observed for the study and neither person was given undue deference on discussions about conventional healthcare and pharmaceuticals. This was precisely because of the emphasis on the fact that everyone has a form of lay expertise inherent in their experiences as a patient).

Participants can be recruited by direct invitation or by a general marketing campaign, or even a bit of busking on the day of the event. This will largely depend on whether Venue Option 1 or Venue Option 2 are selected (above), but you should always ensure that participants are fully briefed before they agree to participate.

In either case recruitment can be initiated by e-mail, telephone or post. Using the mailing lists of existing organisations can be useful in the recruitment process. General advertisements for participants posted in newspapers, etc. can also be used for both Venue Options.

It can be useful to ask people to register in advance their interest in attending, not just to give the organisers a sense of the possible level of attendance but also to amass a list of individuals to email about future events and to provide them with any advance information that may be relevant (e.g. if the event is also going to be used for data collection purposes, this should be flagged up to participants before they arrive).

2.3 How?

One of the key decisions in terms of event structure, number of participants and format is whether there will be a trained facilitator allocated to each focus group within the event. Having at least one facilitator per group (full moderation) requires greater resources, especially if volunteer facilitators are not forthcoming.

A video clip is sometimes used as a stimulus for discussion. This can be a film clip as in Case Study 1, or any other bit of video footage that might foster conversation on the topic at hand. For example, the Vega Trust offers short digital videos on a wide range of science topics:

More prosaically, it is highly recommended that you schedule a break for approximately halfway through the focus group session (i.e. this normally takes place after the focused activity is complete and before the follow-up question phase begins).

2.3.1 Option 1 (full moderation)

A focus-group based public engagement event could take myriad forms and structures. Below, I briefly review one empirical example, described as Case Study 1. This event took place in the south of England in 2008.

Option 1 Marketing

The event was advertised as part of a larger science festival. The organisers of the event were not directly affiliated with the larger festival and did none of the marketing directly. This was a problem because the advert for the event did not align very well with what the practitioners were actually going to be doing. As a result, three people left after the first few minutes saying that the event was not what they were expecting.

Moreover, the practitioners were travelling in from a city over 100 miles away, so they were not able to draw on any local contacts to draw in a larger audience. There was no advance booking for this event; rather, people were invited to show up in the evening at one of two start times.

Option 1 Event Structure

  • A brief introduction was given regarding the practitioners’ identity and a very description of the event structure.
  • Participants were shown a video clip from a science fiction film featuring an android.
  • uBefore the event, two envelopes with questions inside them had been planted in the middle of the circle of chairs for each group. These were open-ended, values-based questions about what would be desirable or undesirable in the future with regards to robots, especially human-like robots (as were depicted in the film clips). After the short (approx. 5-minute) film clip played, participants were asked to open the first envelope and discuss the question inside.
  • This discussion was managed by one facilitator per group. In the first session of the evening, there were two groups (with 8 and 7 participants respectively) with one facilitator each. The second session was less well attended and only had one group with eight participants, managed by one facilitator (the other facilitator observed). It is notable that there were four practitioners in attendance, thus affording them the option of fielding up to four facilitators if the numbers necessitated it.
  • After about 30 minutes discussing the first question, a second film clip was played from a different science fiction film featuring androids. Participants were then asked to open the second envelope and discuss the open-ended question inside. At this juncture in the first session the facilitators swapped groups.
  • After about 30 minutes of facilitated discussion, there was a brief intergroup sharing discussion in the first session.
  • Participants were thanked for their attendance and some were asked to participate in the evaluation.
  • There was a room off to the side of the main space were the engagement event occurred where coffee and tea were available for purchase by donation and the conversation continued with about 1/3 of the attendees in the first session (until the next session had to start).

Additional Options for Consideration

For Option 1 (full moderation), one interesting option that could be pursued if the resources are available is to train scientists working in the scientific topic area covered in the event to act as focus group moderators. This would:

  1. provide the scientists with an important professional development skill
  2. offer scientists the opportunity to listen to publics’ views about their scientific field
  3. provide organisers with a ready source of possible volunteers to enable full moderation with potentially less expenditure.

This approach would address a recurring concern expressed by participants in Option 2 (see below). Namely, participants were very interested in having their concerns ‘listened to’ by the ‘right’ people. Because the topic was healthcare, doctors and other professionals involved in conventional healthcare were identified as the ‘right’ listeners for participants’ concerns. In the case of a science-related topic, specialist scientists in the relevant field may very well be a participant-preferred ‘listener’ category, as well as furnishing interesting feedback to participants as part of a wider discussion.

2.3.2 Option 2 (partial moderation):

Partial moderation was employed in the structure of Case Study 2, Listen to me, I’m a patient (LTM). In sum, the LTM format allocated two trained facilitators to each event, regardless of size. This meant that for most of the eight events, there was less than a 1 to 1 ratio of facilitators to groups. As such, mechanisms were put in place to allow for ‘self-facilitation’ within the groups. Most notably, a flipchart was set up with four categories listed on it. Participants were asked to select a scribe and discuss different points to be written up on the flipchart page.

While this made for an elastic and logistically simple system allowing two facilitators to be used even with many different groups, the lack of full moderation was a source of problems according to the follow-up evaluation research conducted with participants for Case Study 2.

2.3.3 Additional Option (Focused Activity):

A ‘focused activity’ can be used to provide an ‘ice breaker’ at the outset of a focus group-based public engagement event. Participants work together to complete a focused activity with minimal intervention from the researcher , using stimulus material, including instructions (either written or oral), equipment (e.g. pens, paper, cards) and resources (e.g. images from media coverage) to facilitate this process. There are no defined limits on the content of this activity. An adaptation of the Deliberative meeting of citizens (Democs) card game would be one option.

Alternatively, the ‘news game’ could be used. In the ‘news game’ exercise (see Kitzinger, 1990; Philo, 1990), participants are given 20-30 minutes to generate either a television news bulletin (including a script and image montage), or a newspaper article (including the headline, text and use of images) using images selected to represent media coverage of the scientific issue under discussion. For a description of the results of this activity, see Holliman and Scanlon (2009).

Participants can be asked to present an output produced in the focused activity to the others at the event (e.g. with one participant reading the text in the role of a newsreader [for the television news bulletins], or journalist [for a newspaper article] and another demonstrating which images have been used [for television news bulletins, these are shown in sequence]). Organisers should retain a flexible approach to this activity, allowing all willing participants to be involved (e.g. in one past example, a group performed their focused activity news script as a fictional play, see Holliman, 2004).

Regardless of the specific task, focused activities require a sufficiently directive structure to facilitate interaction with minimal intervention from the researcher. For example, the focused activity needs to be free standing, in that participants are given all the information, equipment and instructions for the entire activity before they begin work. Most importantly, each participant should be given a 1-2 page ‘tip sheet’ with a list of considerations relevant to the focus group topic that they should address through group discussion. It is also useful to have the participants construct some kind of output that visually represents the results of their discussion in a manner that makes sense to the group.

3. Required and Optional Ingredients

  • Papers and pens for each participant.
  • Post-it notes spread out on tables.
  • Large marker pens (at least 2 or 3, ideally different colours)
  • Rulers (2-3)
  • Coffee and/or tea and cups
  • Bottled water
  • Pastries, biscuits, crackers, pre-prepared vegetable tray or other snack food.
  • Optional: If playing a video clip, then a projector and screen will be needed.
  • Focused Activity (Optional): 3-4 large sheets of paper for the focused activity output.
  • Focused Activity (Optional): Printouts of the focused activity tip sheet, any written materials for the focused activity (e.g. newspaper stories) and (optionally) some informational materials for the participants to take home with them about the topic under discussion. (Be sure to have enough copies for each participant and for the moderator in case she or he is asked a question about them)
  • Audio Recording Equipment (Optional): If it is desirable to capture the focus group discussions for presentation of an edited version as part of a podcast or for data analysis or evaluation purposes , then it is useful to purchase digital voice recording equipment. Regardless of which equipment you use, it should be tested in advance and a back-up used to ensure successful data capture. If you do record a focus group then you may wish to have the recording transcribed. There are several companies that produce transcripts, with varying rates.
  • Video Recording Equipment (Optional): Likewise, it may be desirable to record some of the focus group discussions to be made edited into a version that can be distributed on disc or via a website. Good video recording equipment can be expensive, especially when seeking high quality audio as well. The video recording function on a standard digital camera is unlikely to provide a satisfactory quality production value.
  • It is also worth noting that some organisers pay incentives for participation.

Evaluation suggestions

It is usually a valuable exercise to evaluate the success of your focus group-based public engagement event, especially if you will be conducting more than one. This evaluation does not need to be overly formalised or onerous. But it is useful to assess whether participants gained knowledge, interest in learning more about the scientific topic, citizenship skills or an improved sense of their ability to engage in discussions of scientific issues, or other desired positive outcomes as a result of their participation. (Such goals will likely depend on the motivations of you, your employer and/or your sponsor.)

There are a number of options for evaluating the effectiveness of your focus group-based event. Below, I briefly review three mechanisms, which correspond to the two key perspectives implicated in a focus group interview. First, the moderator or observer’s impressions and observations of the focus group process can be utilised as an evaluative lens (see below). Second, a brief questionnaire can offer valuable insight into participants’ perceptions and what they feel they have gained from the experience. Third, if the focus group is recorded then the moderator can review the recording and/or transcript.

Moderator Observations

In order to capture impressions and items of interest from the focus group session, it is important for the moderator or an observer to take ‘field notes’ about any potentially relevant occurrences. Possible phenomena worthy of such notation includes body language, interesting participant comments and gestures, discussion points that spark heightened passions or debate, side discussions and emerging sub-groupings amongst participants and thoughts offered during the breaks or after the session is complete.

These field notes can also be used by the moderator to spark further discussion on the day, or in subsequent iterations of focus-group based public engagement on the same topic. Additionally, the moderator(s) can usefully summarise some of the themes they identified in the group discussions to the larger group when there are multiple focus groups within the same event. This can show participants that they have been listened to and how their perspectives are being used, e.g. in the production of a report.

Participant Questionnaire

Administer a paper-based questionnaire asking participants to reflect on their experiences of taking part in the research. What have they gained? What could have been done more effectively? Such questions can inform the structure of other focus group interviews, as well as providing evidence of success to your sponsor (if applicable).

Further reading

  • Hansen, A., Cottle, S., Negrine, R., and Newbold, C. (1998). Mass communication research methods. London: MacMillan Press.
  • Holliman, Richard and Scanlon, Eileen (2009). Interpreting contested science: media influence and scientific citizenship. In: Holliman, Richard, Whitelegg, Liz, Scanlon, Eileen, Smidt, Sam and Thomas, Jeff (eds.) Investigating science communication in the information age: Implications for public engagement and popular media. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp. 254–273.
  • Holliman, R. (2005). Reception analyses of science news: Evaluating focus groups as a research method. Sociologia e ricerca sociale, 76-77, pp. 1-13.
  • Holliman, R. (2004). Media coverage of cloning: A study of media content, production and reception, Public Understanding of Science, 13(2), pp. 107-130.
  • Jensen, E. and Holliman, R. (2009). Investigating science communication to inform science outreach and public engagement, in Holliman, R., Whitelegg, E., Scanlon, E., Smidt, S. and Thomas, J. (eds.) Investigating science communication in the information age: Implications for public engagement and popular media. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 55-71.
  • Kitzinger, J., and Barbour, R.S. (1999). Introduction: the challenge and promise of focus groups, in J. Kitzinger and R.S. Barbour (Eds.), Developing focus group research: Politics, theory and practice (pp. 1-20). London: Sage.
  • Kitzinger, J. (1990). Audience Understandings of AIDS Media Messages: A Discussion of Methods, Sociology of Health and Illness, 12(3), pp. 319-335.
  • Morgan, D.L. (1997). The Focus Group as Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Morgan, D.L. and Spanish, M.T. (1984). Focus groups: A new tool for qualitative research. Qualitative Sociology, 7, pp. 253-270.
  • Philo, G. (1990). Seeing and Believing. London: Routledge.
  • Zorn, T.E., Roper, J., Broadfoot, K., and Weaver, C.K. (2006). Focus groups as sites of influential interaction: Building communicative self-efficacy and effecting attitudinal change in discussing controversial topics. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 34(2), pp. 115-140.


The section About ISOTOPE illustrates the large number of contributors who worked on the development of the Isotope webiste. Richard Holliman played a key role in the development of the related research for the ISOTOPE project and edited drafts of this activity template.