A focus group is organized to obtain participant opinions and feedback on a topic or question. The method has traditionally been used in market research, developing political strategies, as well as in policy-making and other public engagement initiatives.
Problems and Purpose
A focus group aims to provide insight into the group’s views on a topic. Ideally, a focus group should provide the research or decision-maker a detailed idea of the concerns of a given community . They may be useful at different stages of policy development; early on they can provide an insight into the kinds of issues and values that are of concern. Later on, they may be used to garner views on a proposed policy.
Focus groups may also form one part of a broader engagement process, used to help practitioners and policymakers frame an issue or define the scope of a planned engagement process . They can be particularly useful during the preliminary stage of a participatory project, to help identify and define problems, which are then considered by stakeholders and citizens at a later stage using a different method.
A focus group can be employed in political situations although gathering feedback on, for example, legislation often follows a much more rigorous and publicly transparent model such as a Citizens' Jury. Focus groups are commonly employed by community committees and neighbourhood associations as a means of collecting public feedback and opinion.
Origins and Development
Focus groups were developed as an academic qualitative research method in the early 20th Century. Since then they have been used by a wider variety of groups including the US military and activist groups .
Focus groups have become closely associated with market research and the market testing of products. Whilst the market testing approach can also be applied to public engagement, whereby policymakers may engage with the public to ‘test out’ a new policy and see if it is viable , focus groups have been tweaked and developed over the years to accommodate different needs and purposes. It is possible to follow a less structured approach in a focus group whereby participants discuss primarily amongst themselves and are less directed by the moderator/facilitator .
How it Works
Participant selection will vary according to the organiser, their needs and resources. A focus group may target a specific demographic from which participants can be invited. Selection can be random to enhance representativeness, although it is worth noting that the numbers in a focus group are generally so small (8-15) that even with a more ‘representative’ sample, results cannot legitimately be generalized. Alternatively, participants may be selected purposely, if the organiser requires insight into a specific viewpoint, rather than a range of views .
Focus groups originally evolved as a form of group interview, but have developed since then and in research terms, sit somewhere between “between individual interviews where only one respondent is involved in a considerably structured setting and participant observation where many participants are involved in a relatively unstructured of ‘natural’ setting” [3,p4].
A focus group is led by a moderator or facilitator who asks the group to respond to some combination of open and closed questions. It is generally held over a period of 1 – 4 hours and can be carried out as part of a series or as a one-off event. An audio recording may be created, which is then transcribed into text for analysis.
The actual process of a focus group varies in practice. Liamputtong  identifies broadly two different approaches: the more structured focus typically used in market research, where the moderator seeks to elicit answers to specific question/s from participants, and a less structured approach favoured by social scientists. The latter approach involves a hands-off approach with the moderator facilitating discussion rather than steering it, and participants talking more amongst themselves.
Although less resource and time intensive than many methods of public engagement and participation, focus groups still require a decent amount of planning and preparation. Jensen  recommends at least 4-6 weeks to allow time for recruitment of participants and preparation. For issues that are not well-known amongst the target participants, organisers may need to prepare briefing materials and background information.
The focus group itself can take different forms, again according to the organiser’s needs. The role of the facilitator is key to whether the group follows a more or less structured approach; the participants must feel comfortable enough to share their opinions freely , although in practice, it is still possible that some participants will speak more than others. This may be mitigated by effective facilitation although it is a potential weakness of any group discussion setting that the more articulate and confident dominate the conversation.
There is no need for participants to reach a collective decision, consensus or even agreement on the topic discussed – this is simply not the aim of a focus group. As mentioned above, focus groups may form one component of a broader engagement process that utilizes other methods.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Through deliberation and preference/opinion articulation, results of a focus group may be relayed to government officials by community members or else used to inform their own decisions and subsequent actions. However, decision-makers are usually under no obligation to act upon this feedback.
In academic research, focus group data may be used in a variety of ways as part of a qualitative analysis, illuminating important values and views on a given issue. The information garnered from a focus group is generally at the disposal of the researcher or organiser and can be used as they see fit .
A potential problem in a focus group is similar to that found in the interview. Participants may regard the moderator (in the case of the interview, the interviewer), and even the clinical context itself, as a motivation to answer questions in ways that diverge from participants' actual opinions. Furthermore, participants may not feel comfortable sharing their honest opinions with an unfamiliar group, skewing the results .
Focus groups, whilst useful in illuminating participants’ views on an issue, are not geared towards developing participants’ views or thinking. For example, whilst a focus group may highlight divergent views on a topic, there is nothing inherent within the method that seeks to address differences or help the affected community resolve disagreements . For that reason, focus groups on controversial issues should be approached with caution and carefully considered by organisers before proceeding . In these cases, a highly skilled facilitator is even more necessary, along with briefing and ground rules established at the outset of the discussion.
Due to the small number of participants in a focus group, it would be unwise to generalise the results to a wider population or to claim some kind of democratic legitimacy in the outcome. In addition, as they are a controlled process directed by the organiser, focus groups are vulnerable to criticisms such as ‘who was invited?’, ‘why wasn’t I invited?’ and ‘why should I trust the outcome?’ .
 United States Environmental Protection Agency (2016) Public Participation Guide: Focus Groups. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/international-cooperation/public-participation-guide-focus-groups
 Metro Council (n.d.) Public Engagement: A Primer from Public Agenda. Retrieved from: https://metrocouncil.org/Handbook/Files/Community-Engagement/PublicEngagementPrimer.aspx
 Liamputtong, P. (2011) Focus group methodology: introduction and history. In Liamputtong, P. (2011) Focus group methodology: Principles and practice. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781473957657
 Goodin, R. & Dryzek, J.S. (2006) Deliberative Impacts: The Macro-Political Uptake of Mini-Publics. Politics & Society. 34(2), pp. 219 – 244. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1177/0032329206288152
 Jensen, E. (2008) Focus Group-based Public Engagement. Open University. Retrieved from: http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/per/?p=550
Lindlof, T., & B. Taylor (2002). Qualitative communication research methods, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Krueger, R. A. (2002). Designing and Conducting Focus Group Interviews. http://www.eiu.edu/ihec/Krueger-FocusGroupInterviews.pdf