I started moderating focus groups about 10 years. Though I am naturally an introvert, I absolutely love talking to people for research purposes. I had a great mentor who taught me how to approach focus group moderation and how to get the best information from those groups. One of the key elements to a good group is a good discussion guide.

Here is my approach to focus group discussion guides.

Establish the Reason and Set the Rules

  • Provide a general one-sentence overview that explains what we will be talking about during this group.
  • Explain why they have been selected for this group.
  • Give an approximate duration for the group discussion.
  • Explain that every person around the table is important and they all must speak up and participate in the conversation.
  • Tell them that you have no stake in the outcome of the group, so they should not be afraid of hurting my feelings when they answer questions. We just want them to be honest.
  • Notify them that the group is being recorded, not for publication, but for my reference as a moderator.
  • Ask people to turn off their phones and take bluetooth earpieces out (yes, people still wear these).

Build Rapport

  • Introduce myself.
  • Ask each participant to introduce themselves and tell us something about themselves that they think is interesting.
  • Pay attention to what they say and try to connect with each person in some way.

Introduce the Subject

Ask questions about the general subject, without getting into the specifics of what you are there to learn. For example, if we are doing creative testing for an automotive maintenance shop, I might start by asking about the last time they took their car in for maintenance, where they went, what service they had done and what the experience was like.

Encourage Individual Opinions

If we are doing creative testing, I will often show and explain the creative then ask participants to answer my questions in writing first. Then, I will ask them to share and discuss. This makes sure their opinions and initial reactions are their own and not influenced by the group.

Probe For Specifics

Never let someone talk without asking “why” about something they said. There is always more to the story, but most people need an invitation to dig deeper and explain why they do or do not like something, what is the most appealing and least appealing to them, and why they reacted the way that they did.

The Open-Ended End

I would like to think that I invented the most perfect end to focus groups. But I am sure that I picked up learning from someone else along the way. My favorite way to end a focus group: “Is there anything that I didn’t ask that I should have asked? Is there anything else you want to make sure I know before we leave this room?” There is always more! Someone (usually multiple people) add something at the end that is valuable to our research. They just needed the invitation to say it!

By the end, the focus group should feel like a group of friends discussing your topic rather than a group of strangers just ready to get paid and leave. The moderator has the power to make the group dynamic and open. It just takes some practice. You will know you have had a successful group when participants stick around to talk to you or to each other.