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Focus Groups: Theory

This guide is intended to support the presentation on Focus Groups at the 2016 South Dakota Library Association annual conference.

What is a focus group?

"Focus groups are fundamentally a way of listening to people and learning from them" (Morgan, 1998 p.9).

Focus groups are:

  • small groups
  • conversations
  • topic driven

Advantages of Focus Groups


  • If your topic is controversial, consider using people outside your library to moderate and take notes.
  • If people have something negative to say, they may not say it to your face.

Qualitative Data

  • Rich understandings of participants experiences.
  • Good for discovery research - not trying to prove something with numbers.
  • Get context for comments to get a deeper understanding.
  • Interpretation is helped by the ability to ask why for particularly interesting comments.

Develops Ideas

  • Participants can build off the ideas of others in developing their own ideas and opinions.
  • Listening to others' comments can trigger new ideas you might not have gotten otherwise.

3-Part Process

ThinkThink about what you want to learn about your library. This is a crucial step. Don't go too big on this - keep it focused.




Listen to what the groups say. It can be hard not to chime in, especially if the group wants something you already offer. But remember that you are there to listen. If you want to chime in, keep it short and go back to listening.



Scribe WritingSummarize your findings. Know up front who will get the results, what you want for the results (a bulleted list or an in-depth analysis), and how you will communicate to the public the results and any resulting changes.

Few, Few, Few Principle

Do a FEW focus groups

Too many groups makes analysis time consuming and difficult.

With a FEW people

Too many people in one group may prevent some people from speaking.

Too many people produces too much data and too much data makes analysis time consuming and difficult.

Asking a FEW questions

Too many questions may mean that you have to move on before the group has finished with a topic.

Too many questions produces too much data and too much data....

Human Subjects Research

Stick person illustrationFocus groups use humans as the research subjects. This means that certain precautions must be taken. If you are going to publish your research, you will need to have your research plan approved by an Institutional Research Board (IRB) or other such organization. Most research that poses little or no risk to participants or is used only for quality improvement does not need IRB approval. It is always best to talk to someone from an IRB if you have any questions.

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