The do’s and don’ts of using focus groups in prevention research

Nikki Gambles is a third year PhD student studying at the Public Health Institute at Liverpool John Moores University. In this article, she reflects on some of her experiences of using focus groups in her PhD research.

For this month’s blog, I take time to reflect on my recent experiences conducting focus group (FG) interviews with young adults and share the challenges that I faced along the way. Beginning my first qualitative research project was a daunting experience. When it came to planning the FG study, I was met by a plethora of conflicting research outlining the dos and don’ts of FG practice. I found it difficult at times to understand which of the practices would do my research justice and which recommendations I should adhere to. Here, I share my own experiences of the challenges I was faced with and reflect on what did and did not work.

FG interviews are common tool often utilised in public health and prevention research. They feature as ‘carefully planned discussions, designed to obtain perceptions on a defined area of interest in a permissive, non-threatening environment’ (Krueger, 1994: 6) and are based on the synergy of group interaction. For my research, I conducted several FGs with prospective university students (high school and college students) to explore current perceptions of the university drinking culture and explore what factors contribute to the construction of these expectations.

Recruitment challenges

The first challenge I was faced with was recruiting my target population. Educational institutions are notoriously difficult to recruit. Schools are often inundated with academic research invitations and the varying examination periods and school holidays mean that there is limited time to undertake research. Because of these challenges, recruitment was a protracted process that took longer than initially anticipated, therefore my advice would be to start recruiting as early as possible. Also, where you can be persistent, I found schools were willing to participate but often hadn’t got back to me with it being a ‘busy time of year’. Schools are however a great recruitment source as they allow you to collect data from multiple sources and tap into pre-existing groups, which means less organising on your part!

Young adults as participants

The young adults partaking in the FGs placed great emphasis on the opinions of their peers and at times appeared unengaged giving short and non-descriptive answers.  Although this is something that cannot be prevented, I utilised several techniques to try and overcome these challenges. I would highly recommend the inclusion of stimulus material, such as introductory icebreaker activities or vignettes as these appeared to reduce participants’ initial apprehension and commence discussion and group interaction. Additionally, directed questions drew out the opinions of subdued participants who did not involve themselves in the naturally occurring conversations.

The composition of the group is key

Of all the different components to consider when planning FGs, the composition of the group is key. When reading the literature around group formation, recommendations for group size vary from four (Krueger, 1994) to sixteen (Braithwaite et al., 2004). Personally, I found groups that were smaller in size (five to six participants) produced a rich exchange of ideas and were easier to moderate. With some of the larger groups (eight participants), it was more difficult to manage dominant group members and often multiple conversations would occur, which at times created challenges.

Where possible I used pre-existing friendship groups that were homogenous in nature. Again, there is debate around whether groups should consist of strangers, acquaintances or peers. In my opinion the groups that utilised pre-existing friendships allowed for fluid discussion, where participants challenged but also built on each other’s perceptions and ideas. At times, they were difficult to manage as shared experiences and stories often led to discourse that went off topic. On the other hand, the group that were only acquainted with each other were reluctant to share their opinions and were more likely to conform to a collective consensus.

Prepare for the unexpected

FG studies have the potential to provide you with rich data which elicits a range of ideas, feelings and opinions. Moderating FGs, however, is not an easy task and is often fraught with challenges. I have read very few accounts that prepare you for the pitfalls you will face along the way, here I list just some of the challenges I encountered.

Table 1: Challenges and Recommendations for Focus Group Research

Challenges Recommendations
Participants that do not show up on the day Over-recruit FGs
Late arrivals Although disruptive, pause the FG and go through the aims, ethics and FG ground rules with the late arrival (alternatively you could turn them away!)
Room layout When recruiting through schools you may get located into a room which is not appropriate to conduct FGs. Where possible let the school know in advance what type of layout would be best suited
Groups that didn’t talk and groups that talked too much This is a moderating issue, and can be managed through non-verbal and verbal indications. Try and prevent multiple participants talking at once as this can be a nightmare to transcribe.
Overrunning Where possible take a second researcher to time keep and note take
Disruptive or disengaged participants Set some ground rules at the beginning of the FG e.g. no mobile phones

These challenges should not deter you from conducting FGs, but being aware of what can go wrong allows you to prepare for every eventuality and reduce the likelihood of it occurring. The FGs generated interesting, original and rich data, I found moderating the FGs to be a fantastic and enjoyable experience and hope to conduct more studies like this in the future.

About the Author

My name is Nikki Gambles and I am a third year PhD student studying at the Public Health Institute at Liverpool John Moores University. My research interests focus on drinking behaviours and the cultural backdrop in which they lie. My PhD programme of study explores the impact of the transition to university on students’ drinking behaviours through a mixed method approach. I am particularly interested in perceptions that are constructed around student drinking and how they can influence behaviour. You can read more about my work here: or email her at: N.H.Gambles[at]



Braithwaite, J., Hindle, D., Finnegan, T. P., Graham, E. M., Degeling, P. J., and Westbrook, M. T. (2004) “How important are quality and safety for clinician managers? Evidence from triangulated studies.”Clinical Governance: An International Journal 9, (1) 34-41

Krueger, R. A. (1994). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Cite this blog post
EUSPR Early Careers Forum (2017, April 27). The do’s and don’ts of using focus groups in prevention research. Preventing disease and ill health. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

6 thoughts on “The do’s and don’ts of using focus groups in prevention research

  1. Very interesting blog post, thank you Nicki.
    In my opinion it’s essential to plan a FG in detail. So I guess this will be very helpful for many of us in the future.
    I would be interested to know how many focus groups you hold. And how did you capture the FG data? Did you audio tape the conversation?
    Good luck for the data analysis and the next steps!

    • Hi Sefanie,

      Thanks for your comments! I conducted seven focus groups 6 single sexed and 1 mixed, which were all recorded with a Dictaphone. I did actually take two Dictaphones with me and placed them at either end of the table as it was difficult to pick up noise especially when people were talking over each other- this made transcribing a lot easier as well.

      I also took notes on any observations etc. The second researcher took notes as well which we then compared at the end. I found having the second researcher made the whole process run a lot more smoothly.

      Good luck with everything!!

  2. Very useful tips for real world research Nikki, thank you! I am also conducting focus groups as part of my mixed methods PhD research, which looks at perceptions and social norms around adolescent alcohol use. Although I am focusing on a younger cohort (12-15 year olds), I am also interested in this ‘transition period’ and how social norms regarding alcohol use change from early to mid-adolescence to influence initiation of drinking behaviours. I would be keen to learn more about your methodology and analyses, if you have any publications on your research to date? Best of luck with the rest of your PhD!

    • Hi Kathy,

      This sounds really interesting and something that I feel is under researched in this field. I have come across few qualitative studies exploring social norms in young people, so it would be really interesting to see what you find!

      I haven’t published anything of yet (I am in the process of publishing my quant findings) but I would be more than happy to share with you how I went about recruiting the schools etc. Like I mentioned in the blog, it was a little disheartening at first because responses were low but after multiple emails and letters you do get there. I am in the process of analysing my data but as there is little research in this area I have chosen to take an exploratory approach to the data and am using thematic analysis.

      Here is my email address if you want to drop me an email and I can go through the my methods in more detail etc.

      Hope everything is going well 🙂

  3. Thank you Nikki for that interesting post!
    I was wondering if you had an opinion about asking participants to answer to a questionnaire prior the FG so as to collect socio-demographics data or to measure some variables using scales for example?
    You have a good point about recruitment challenges. The sooner the better! If possible, I would recommend people who whish to work with a young population (e.g. high school) to recruit participants from school and from community centre as well. As such, you can have access to the population both during school and holiday period. But again it could be time consuming to create the partnership.

    • Hi Boris,

      Thank you for your comments, yes I did use a demographic questionnaire. It didn’t take that long and it proved really useful in the analysis when I was comparing different views etc. I did find that they discussed their answers with the group so if your planning to ask any sensitive information it may be best to ask them to fill it in on their own, but yes I definitely recommend it!

      Yes I agree, I tried to organise focus groups with university students and it was so difficult to arrange a time, date and location that everyone could make. Having pre-established groups works so much better!!
      Good luck with everything

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