looking for focus group participants
What is a focus group?
Focus groups are made up of individuals who have been chosen because they have some factor in common, for example, they all make use of the same service or they all have some demographic factor in common which is being investigated.
Different from everyday group discussions of a wide range of topics, the discussion is guided through a range of specific areas by a leader, or moderator.
The aim is specifically to find out the group’s opinion about a particular issue.
In the past, product marketing was where their common use first emerged, and also in gauging the opinion of the electorate on particular policies.
Savigny (2007), describes their use by the British Labour party.
More recently we have seen their widespread use as a participatory approach to research planning.
Notable here was work by Bagnoli and Clark (2010), in producing the most appropriate research design.
Focus groups can be used at various stages within the research process and as such are particularly versatile.
Using a focus before a particular research project begins gives an idea of the important , or perhaps a population demographic.
Later they can be used during the research period or to gather feedback afterward.
In fact it may be that their use would be most appropriate in any one, or indeed, all of the previously mentioned phases.
Because they are being seen as a versatile method which generates quick results, producing rich and complex data, relatively cheaply, focus groups are now being seen as a legitimate and important research method in the field of political science.
The group make-up is determined by the research question or questions, and what information the researcher is trying to obtain.
Therefore, if we want to use focus groups in carrying out research with people with disabilities, it is of primary importance to remember that they are, first and foremost people, just like any other group of research participants, before considering what additional issues must be taken into account.
At this point I would want to prepare a detailed plan to cover the entire process right through to data analysis, follow-up, and de-brief and dissemination.
Selection criteria for the group must be clear, for example do we want a cross-section, or a group made up around one particular type of disability, such as wheelchair users, individuals with sight loss or those with complex needs.
Research experience over decades has shown that being overly prescriptive about the target population results in difficulties in recruitment so perhaps a cross-section is more likely to provide participants.
Specific choices now need to be made with regard to recruitment, that is, exactly where will the members of the group come from?
For example we can approach centres run by disability organisations, centres for independent living, support groups, classes or clubs.
While sometimes the only option, this can bring its own problems in the form of ‘professional participants’ who may in fact be tired of being the ‘go to’ interviewees.
Looking for individuals who don’t reside in supported communities may widen the target audience.
If utilising recruitment material such as information packs these require to be made up and be available in various formats: large print, Braille, audio files etc.
In terms of group size, some sources suggest an ideal number of 6 to 8 individuals, with others suggesting 8 to 12 in the group.
These numbers will need to be reduced if participants have sensory or cognitive disabilities, or if using augmented communication systems for example, as more time is required to complete the process.
I would now also be thinking about recruitment of moderators.
Moderators can usually be found among existing members of staff, but if not, recruited from out-with the university.
Next, I would establish the level of those recruited and arrange for the provision of training as required
Once the focus group make-up has been established, how contact will be made with them will be set out, and consideration given to how individuals with specific needs relating to assistance will be catered for, that is, taking into account the presence of assistants and/or proxy respondents.
How participants will make their way to and from the venue for the focus group should be considered and also that their transport can reach the venue.
As the most suitable and convenient means of recording the focus group is via audio or audio/visual recording, permission from participants to record the meeting and permission to carry out the research must be obtained.
It is important that the built environment where the meetings will be held is sufficiently large, and the toilet areas are fully accessible for those in wheelchairs or with restricted mobility.
A hearing loop facility will be required for those using hearing aids, and the area should be sufficiently well lit to aid those who lip read.
If refreshments are available, this area, if separate from the meeting area, requires to be fully accessible too, and dietary requirements noted beforehand.
Some conditions, such as ABI or cognitive disabilities, cause the individual to become tired very quickly when required to concentrate and therefore, if this is the case a rest area should be available where they are able to break from the group.
Situations such as these can be difficult and challenging to manage, however, the comfort and well-being of the participant should be paramount.
Earlier I mentioned proxy respondents, often a personal assistant, who responds on behalf of participants with communication difficulties, and the respondent acts to some degree as a translator.
It is important that what is conveyed is what the disabled person wishes to say, and not the opinion of the proxy respondent.
Some sources suggest that because of this, the use of proxy respondents should be minimised as far as possible in order to obtain the personal experience of the participant.
If proxy respondents are present in the group, establishing a set of rules for them, prior to the meeting, will help to ameliorate any negative impact on data quality.
Sometimes it can be impossible to distinguish between the opinion of the assistant and those of the participant.
The moderator will need to clarify whether what was said is the sole opinion of the participant, or does it include that of the assistant/proxy respondent.
The moderator is in possession of any details relating to the participants and their needs.
The researcher will already have established a ‘questioning route’ and the moderator will have been given this.
Following a set format it should begin with an opening question to encourage a response and break the ice.
This should be simple such as “What is your name?” followed by another piece of information about the participant such as where they are from.
Next would be an ‘Introduction’ question, perhaps relating to how they found out about the project.
This would be followed by a ‘Transition’ question such as, “Can you say something about your first experience of using self directed support?”
There would follow then, a series of questions known as ‘Key’ questions, relating to their experiences of using self directed support.
Finally, there are ‘Ending’ questions which allow participants to make suggestions about their evaluation of the service and any improvements which they might come up with.
To conclude then, carrying out focus groups with people with disabilities requires a wide range of considerations.
First and foremost though, these participants are people, and an important part of society who can make a valuable contribution to a body of research.
I am currently a research assistant on To Good Self-Directed Support We’re interested in finding out what you think about your support: what works and what doesn’t. We want to see how it could promote genuine independent living and enable more disabled people’s and carers’ lives to be full of choices, opportunities and participation. We also want to find out how much it benefits families, friends, the community and society when disabled people and carers have the right kind of support.
As part of this we are looking for focus group participants across Scotland. Please look at our website to find out more