Tips for using focus groups in qualitative research

There are a variety of “group” interview formats that researchers use. These include

  • brainstorming groups used to generate ideas in a relatively unstructured format;
  • nominal groups, in which a researcher directs members of the group to respond to questions (which may be in written form), and there is minimal or no group interaction (MacPhail, 2001);
  • Delphi groups, in which a panel of experts responds to questions in successive rounds of questioning from the researcher – here the aim is to come to a consensus concerning the topics examined; and
  • focus groups, in which a group discussion is facilitated by a “moderator” in order to elicit opinions and views about a topic. Here, group interaction is typically encouraged (Roulston, 2010, pp. 34-35).

In this blogpost, I’ll provide some resources for doing research using focus groups.

There are lots of excellent resources on focus groups, including Barbour’s short guide (2007), multiple publications by David Morgan and colleagues (Morgan, 1993, 2002, 2010; Morgan, Fellows, & Guevera, 2008; Morgan & Krueger, 1998), and a more theoretical treatment by Barbour and Kitzinger (1999). For more references see this bibliography.

Scholars who write about focus groups suggest that guides for moderating focus groups should include the following sorts of questions (Krueger & Casey, 2000; Litoselliti, 2003):

Opening questions

These include factual questions that can be answered by everyone quickly and may include ice-breakers so that people can get to know one another. Here, think about drafting questions of this sort:

  • Tell us who you are and what your role is in this organization.
  • What is your name and what is your role here?
  • Tell us your name and a favorite activity

Introductory questions

These sorts of questions introduce a topic and open up spaces to foster discussion. Examples include:

  • Tell me about the things you enjoy about your work here.
  • What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear… (Krueger & Casey, 2000, p. 45).

Key questions

Key questions correspond to the main research questions posed for a study. Writers typically recommend including two to five questions and allowing 10-20 minutes for discussion of each (Krueger & Casey, 2000, p. 45).

In order to transition from one topic to the next, it’s useful to use transition questions.

Transition questions

help participants provide more detail about a topic discussed before moving on to a discussion of the next topic. For example:

  • Could you say more about…?
  • Tell me about other alternatives to ……
  • We’ve been talking about…. let’s move on to…. (Litoselliti, 2003, p. 61).

Finally, thoughtful questions will assist in bringing a focus group to closure.

Ending questions

involve summarizing what has been talked about (Krueger & Casey, 2000, p. 45). Examples include:

  • Of all the ….. that were discussed, which one was most important to you?
  • Have we missed anything? (Litoselliti, 2003, p. 62).
  • Is this an adequate summary?
  • Did I correctly describe what was said?
  • How well does that capture what was said here? (Krueger & Casey, 2000, p. 46).

Similar principles for formulating questions for individual interviews apply to the development of focus groups guide. Questions should be:

  • Open- rather than closed (ie, questions that generate yes/no responses)
  • Neutral (ie, avoid putting possible responses into your question, or formulating questions that “prefer” certain kinds of responses)
  • Short, simple, and clear

Kathy Roulston




Barbour, R. (2007). Doing focus groups. Los Angeles: Sage.

Barbour, R., & Kitzinger, J. (Eds.). (1999). Developing focus group research: Politics, theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Krueger, R. A., & Casey, M. A. (2000). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Litoselliti, L. (2003). Using focus groups in research. London: Continuum.

MacPhail, A. (2001). Nominal Group Technique: A Useful Method for Working with Young People. British Educational Research Journal, 27(2), 161-170.

Morgan, D. L. (1993). Successful focus groups: Advancing the state of the art. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Morgan, D. L. (2002). Focus group interviewing. In J. F. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of interview research: Context and method (pp. 141-160). Thousand Oaks & London: Sage.

Morgan, D. L. (2010). Reconsidering the role of interaction in analyzing and reporting focus groups. Qualitative Health Research, 20(5), 718-722. doi:10.1177/1049732310364627

Morgan, D. L., Fellows, C., & Guevera, H. (2008). Emergent approaches to focus group research. In S. N. Hesse-Biber & P. Leavy (Eds.), Handbook of emergent methods (pp. 189-205). New York & London: The Guilford Press.

Morgan, D. L., & Krueger, R. A. (1998). The focus group kit. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Roulston, K. (2010). Reflective interviewing: A guide to theory and practice. London & Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage


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