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  • Cathy G

Doing Focus Groups online

We are all getting used to being online for everything these days. Many are returning to preferred face-to-face methods, but researching online remains the choice for some projects. Having been asked for some advice, I decided to give it some thought.


Why online?

You will be faced with a number of choices when designing your research methods. The principle that should guide your choices is your research purpose. Whatever you design should suit your research purpose (See the Qualitative Research Arc to help you consider this). Having decided that you need to do a focus group because it best suits the purpose of your research, you'll need to think further about how to do a focus group online.


Advantages - reasons to do focus groups online

Focus groups allow to engage with a group of research participants directly AND for them to engage with each-other about your research topic. Practically, bringing people together from a global perspective has never been easier or cheaper, allowing people who would previously been excluded from research to be included.

Methodologically, focus groups, if facilitated appropriately, can allow community and participant involvement in ways that surveys, questionnaires and one-to-one interviews simply can't. Participatory research can foreground the voices, stories and meaning-making of groups that need to be understood for the sake of those groups and society, and indeed the planet.


Practically the in-built features of platforms such as Teams and Zoom, make the recording of audio, visual and some written data forms, cheap and easy to capture for later analysis. Combining video meeting platform tools (like whiteboards and break-out rooms) with other web-tools, such as avatars, group work boards, (e.g. Jamboard (Aww! Google plans to stop using Jamboard), Padlet, Miro), and hangouts, like Wonder, can make the experience interactive and exciting for participants.


Knowing who has said what is vital in the transcription and analysis of focus group data. Using the video capture aspect of online platforms mean that you always know who is speaking, as the platforms have inbuilt ways of showing this, such as showing the mic in green or showing a thick out-line around the speaker, if all of the visuals are in frame.


Disadvantages - reasons not to do focus groups online

It may sound like I'm trying to put you off and in a way I am. I've met too many students and researchers who are unfamiliar with qualitative methodology that think that focus groups will be a quick, cheap way to get access to lots of data, and online focus groups sound even better. However they have forgotten to think about the nature of that data and how they are going to analyse it. As I go through the things that will put you off, bear in mind that I'll finish with some ways to minimise or handle some of these problems.


Technology

Everyone knows how to use Teams and Zoom don't they? Well, no, they don't necessarily; and they may not even have access to decent internet signal. The kind of signal level and equipment that you use for everyday chats and even lectures, may not be adequate for research focus groups. You will have to investigate this. Whilst it is almost certainly true that it will be less time consuming and cheaper than flying to Karachi to host a focus group, any time and costs saving you had in mind may turn out to be less than you imagine.



Talking to and with groups of people online is frustrating. Some elements have become memes, like, 'You are on mute', 'We can't see you', 'Where's the chat box?', 'How do I share screen?' Normal, unmodulated speech is difficult to follow online, and body langue cues are virtually absent. People know this and will moderate and edit their speech, perhaps being more stilted than they otherwise may be.


How much is this common distortion of communication going to disrupt and distort your focus group, and the data that you gather?


Interactive tools are fun and exciting for users, and well, 'interactive', which is what you want in a focus group. But some will find them daunting and off-putting. They are also time-consuming to prepare and time consuming to show people how to engage with them purposefully. Whilst many face-to-face activities are time consuming to prepare and also require skill in their management and execution, they almost certainly will not break, fail or require an up-grade or system re-boot during the focus group.


Ethics

Online data security is a huge area of concern for all of us. You will need to understand the threat and how to mitigate it. What is an acceptable level of risk? And what is the nature of your research? What could happen to your participants if there is a data-breech? Of course this is true for any kind of online research, not just focus groups. Your institution will almost certainly have policy and or guidance on preferred, or even prohibited tools, so do check locally.


Access, engagement and parity

Similarly, managing time zone differences and the effects that differences in participants to access and engage with technology have on the interaction need to be considered with any online activity. However, these difficulties are amplified when working with a group of people, who not only need to engage with you, but with each-other. (And if you don't want them to engage with each-other, I'm wondering why on earth you're doing a focus group, when you could choose to do individual interviews, or even surveys).


Working across time zones is more challenging than you might imagine. People are more tired in the evening and night, and the rhythms of family life clashes with taking part in a focus group without interruptions.


You will want to give all members of the focus group a fair chance of engaging with you and the group with no more barriers than the next person in the group. Unless you have completely homogenous groups, then barriers for some people are going to be significantly greater for some than others, and as we are increasingly aware, this is likely to be the people who are already disadvantaged in their access.


Analysis

Focus group data is generally harder to analyse than one-to-one or paired interviews, because you are examining the over-all group narrative, individuals scripts and narratives and interactions, both in terms of substantive content and the power dynamic between individua speakers and the group (to name some of the challenges). If you are using online tools, you potentially have even more data to use and justify the inclusion and exclusion from the analysis, and account for their effect on the data. In short, more complex data.


An online scenario actually can minimise some of the complexity of choosing which data to include as there is little physical interaction to account for. Participants online tend to move very little once engaged in discussion, and any attempt at analysing who or what participants are looking at becomes moot in this context and can therefore be ignored. However, having the video makes it easy to see who has spoken and when (i.e. in response to whom or what comment).


Ways to make it happen online

It is worth mentioning that all of the suggestions here will bring up their own dilemmas and considerations. That is normal in research. There is almost certainly no single perfect method, but you will be expected to understand the benefits, limitations and mitigations of the methods you do choose.


Making the best use of time and energy.

A lot of researchers that I meet who are doing focus groups are doing so as part of mixed methods studies, and often have no epistemological barriers to using many different instruments. Even if that is not the case, do make the most of the other methods at your disposal to make sure that information that can be gleaned through other methods has been done. For example

  • Use short questionnaires to gather factual data in advance.

  • Consider using one to one (online) interviews instead of, or as well as, focus groups. Would before or after the focus group work better? Or perhaps both?

Technology

You will (of course!) trial your tools and technology with your peers or research group. Consider running a training session to run through the tools you will be with your group, or take time at the beginning to go through them. Better yet build in a brief call with individuals to your design so you can run through the practicalities together. They might be able to give you some handy tech tips to help things go more smoothly for the group.


Normal speech is sometimes difficult to follow, and trying to transcribe it can be nightmarish at worst and tedious at best. So if there is a little more care given to what participants say, this certainly has practical benefits. As a minimum you should consider the impact of self-editing for clarity of transmission on your participants. Perhaps invite them to comment during the session, or after they have seen a transcript.


To minimise distraction and the risk of tech problems I turn off the video. I can still record the session and I can still tell who is talking. Turn taking can be a little stilted, but people seem to get used it.

Ethics

Identical access and engagement methods are not necessarily the same thing as parity. You might prefer that everyone uses the platform in the same way; with video and mic - this makes it easier for you. But including text options could enable some to take part when their bandwidth simply can't cope with the mic. Facilitating this kind of activity takes a lot of practice and having a moderator to help keep on eye on chat, white-board and synchronous but external platforms can be a great way to make sure that people are not over-looked.

Analysis

The major issue of online speech is that it is not usually as fluent as face to face speech. The good news is that this should not usually affect your analytical method, unless you are interested in semantics. I would urge caution in relying on 'in-vivo' coding without checking if the phrases are indeed a 'natural' choice, or a consequence of choosing phrases because of the need for clarity online. But I offer the same caution for face to face focus groups, so it shouldn't affect your decision to whether to use online or face to face focus groups.


Finally...

Just remember that focus groups may be cheaper, faster and potentially more interesting to gather, as the dynamics are so fascinating, and online appears to be even more cost effective. But any gain made in the gathering of the data will almost certainly be lost in figuring out the implications of the online method on the analysis, and the difficulties in analysing group data. Let the purpose of the research and access to your participants be your guide.


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