My friend Aine McCarthy, a PhD student at University of Minnesota who is doing field research in Tanzania, offered me some advice on focus group sampling methods and arrangements. I also blogged about focus groups (here and here).
The bottom line is that focus group discussions should be informative on the topic you are going to investigate in your subsequent field work (surveys, individual interview, etc). I did three focus group discussions before conducting my survey. Two of them consisted of farmers, and one of boda boda drivers. Only the boda boda driver group can be considered successful. For the first farmer’s group, I did not specify my requirements (only members of the SACCO are eligible). So the village chairperson gathered twelve farmers, among whom only four were members. The focus group discussion turned into a mobilization trip. At last, I had to separate the group into members and non members and let out boda boda driver to explain products at the SACCO (he’s an old member here). The second time for farmer’s group, I did not communicate with the villager leader well and I went to the discussion site empty-handed. This greatly limited my ability to probe meaningful questions.
Based on my experience and Aine’s advice, here are a few more tips:
1. Seek help from village leaders and local organizations which know the population well. They will save you a lot of time finding participants. Remember that focus group participants need not be randomly selected.
2. The criteria to group people should be relevant to your topic of interest. Aine’s research is about family planning, so grouping participants by gender can make the conversation more natural.
3. Choose a suitable group size which allows you to generate enough useful information. On the one hand, a group of only 3 or 4 people (my first farmer’s group) is unlikely to yield rich information. On the other hand, if a group is too large (the definition of “large” depends on the number of investigators and assistants), you will fail to capture all the information. It will also make the discussion longer, which might make participants impatient for the last few questions.
4. Make a list of questions, but be flexible. It doesn’t harm to try a few questions in your first focus group if you are not sure whether they will yield meaningful information.
5. Notify the participants the length of the focus group discussions beforehand. I think it’s basic respect for others’ time.
6. Compensate participants appropriately depending on their contributions and the cultural setting. Sometimes cash works better, but a soda can be enough.
Field research is a process of trial and error. And this process may be particularly lengthy and unpredictable in an unfamiliar environment. Learning by doing is the correct attitude.