What I learned from my first focus group discussion

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, my first focus group discussion among SACCO members is conducted with boda boda drivers. As a novice researcher and a mzungu, I didn’t conducting the discussion perfectly. But I did learn a lot and I am confident that I will do better next time.

Only one boda boda driver showed up at 2PM, our scheduled time of discussion. My translator and I welcomed him into our discussion room, introduced ourselves and told him the purpose of the discussion, and started asking him questions about basic information (number of people in the household, number of people employed. But we soon entered a phase of awkwardness when we didn’t know if we should proceed to the other questions or wait until the others are here. The second driver came in and melted this awkwardness. Since I was not sure whether the others will be coming, I started a small discussion with the two of them. Somewhat unexpectedly, four more drivers showed up. I was happy that I reached the minimum number of participants for a focus group discussion, but I didn’t provide the newcomers with enough context of our discussion.

The first three questions went fine. The respondents were comfortable to discuss with each other. However, one driver said he was too busy and wanted to leave early. Not wanting to disappoint us, he proposed that we ask him the questions first and ask other people after he leaves. Without too much consideration, I agreed. So we spent some fifteen minutes just talking with him. In retrospect, this is a bad strategy because 1) talking with only one participant will not generate a diversity of ideas (which is the aim of the focus group discussion) and is no different from a one-on-one interview 2) the explicit time constraint places the facilitator (in this case, me) under great pressure and lowers the quality of answers, and 3) other participants will feel being left out and may be less involved when they are the ones to speak. 1) and 2) happened this afternoon, and indeed I had to cut some questions short for that one driver. I didn’t finish all the questions for him because I could sense the impatience of other members.

Several points about the skill of asking the questions:
– Not all questions should be asked separately to each respondent. Many can be asked to one respondent first, and then ask the others to share their thoughts.
– Avoid multiple answers at the same time. If more than one is speaking, the translator will have a hard time conveying all the information to the facilitator and the facilitator will be less likely to fully observe everyone’s reaction. This is hard in practice though.
– If you have a translator, ask the translator to translate every sentence that each participant says. This generates a spontaneity between the facilitator and respondents. It also allows the facilitator to probe the answers. My translator was a bit too involved in the discussion herself (as she is a bank officer and knew all the respondents), and often waited to gather all the information before translating to me.
– Have a guideline, but make changes when necessary. While a facilitator should always make sure the discussion is heading for the right direction, she does not need to stick to every single question written in her guidelines. As long as the flow of the discussion is well controlled, the facilitator should focus on probing the most important questions instead of trying to touch upon every detail.

About logistical issues:
– Expect some participants to be early and some to be late. Socialize with the early arrivers and try to keep them in a good mood. I have to admit I did a poor job today: the guy who arrived the earliest was so tired by the time we officially start the discussion that he nearly slept through the rest of it.
– Remember to turn on your recording before the real discussion starts, and ask for permission from the respondents before doing that. I was too nervous today and completely forgot to record (an unforgettable mistake).
– Have a good control of time. If a respondent is repeating what another person has already said or is going off course, politely acknowledge his sharing and steer the discussion back to the right direction.
– Sit in a circle and let everyone see each other. This fosters eye contact and creates a sense of closeness between the facilitator and the respondents.

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One thought on “What I learned from my first focus group discussion

  1. Pingback: More tips on focus group discussions | Maryandmusic's Blog

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