How to write a focus group discussion guide

What is a focus group discussion guide?

A focus group discussion guide (sometimes called a topic guide) is a questionnaire for focus groups, and for other types of qualitative research, such as individual depth interviews. It is called a discussion “guide”, rather than a questionnaire, because it is only meant to be a guide. The moderator might decide to deviate from it, perhaps if participants bring up new and relevant areas of discussion.

Number of questions

A focus group typically lasts for 90 or 120 minutes. A good 30-40 minutes of this could be the moderator talking, either asking the questions or probing for detailed answers. So that leaves 60-80 minutes actual "answering" time. However, the first 10 minutes could be introductions and explanations, so that leaves 50-70 minutes of "answering" time.  If you have 10 questions then this could amount to 5-7 minutes per question, for 8 participants to give their answers.  Hence it is very important to plan the discussion guide carefully. So how do you do this?

Interviewer instructions

Very often a discussion guide will include interviewer instructions. These tell the interviewer how to follow up the questions. For example, imagine there is a question "How do you keep healthy?" in the discussion guide. The interviewer (otherwise known as the moderator) will ask this question to the group, without giving any examples or clues. That's because it could be interesting to hear how different participants think of "health".  But, lets say the research is for a health food brand. So after this initial question, the interviewer may want to ask about the role of diet or hydration in keeping healthy. This is what would go in the interviewer instructions.

Clarify your aims and objectives

When you think about how to write a focus group discussion guide you need to consider various factors. Most important among these are the aims and objectives of your research. The more thoroughly you think about these the faster and easier the discussion guide design process will be.

Begin by writing out in as much detail as possible all the reasons why you are doing the research. Consider what specific questions you want answers to, and what decisions you will use the research results to help inform.

For some or all of these questions you may have hypotheses you want to test. What we mean by this is that if the research is designed to find the reasons why something is happening (such as why sales of your goods or services have fallen in the last 3 months), then the hypotheses you want to test would be all the reasons that you and your colleagues think could be to blame. The aim of the research is to source evidence about which, if any, of these reasons is indeed to blame, or whether there are any other reasons.

If you do not go through this preparatory stage you risk omitting something important. Although it seems like extra work, it really is not, and the end result will be better.

You must avoid loading your discussion guide with any and every question that relates to the subject. That's because this will just annoy or tire out your participants, so you'll end up with less insight on the specific questions to which you want answers.

Once you have really thought through the aims of your research, and specific hypotheses to test then you can design the discussion guide.

Warm up section

The first few minutes of your group should be devoted to warming up the participants, making them relaxed in the group setting, and also getting them to start thinking about the subject generally. So usually your first few questions would be very broad, and designed more to get participants relaxed and talking than necessarily finding out anything useful.

Main section

This is when you ask most of your questions. Try to make them so they are not "leading". In other words, if you are exploring reasons for a decline in sales of your products then ask your questions indirectly. For example, you might ask people what they feel about the price of your products, rather than specifically asking if they think they are too high, too low or about right. You might have to ask these specific questions if you don't get the feedback you wanted by asking about price generally. But try not to ask initially.

In fact, try not to even ask about price at all initially. Really you want to see if participants mention it themselves, without being prompted.

Closing section

You may want to spend the last few minutes of your focus group rounding up your understanding of your participants' answers, and giving them time to respond.