Jo Kidd

Jo Kidd

How to do a focus group remotely – online chat

Focus groups usually happen face-to-face, so you might be tempted to jump straight to thinking about video conferencing as solution. See our blog on how to do online video focus groups for more about this. But have you ever considered doing a focus group in writing using a forum or online messenger?

We have used online chats for a two projects with colleagues at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences. The online chats have many benefits as well as giving interesting data including: 

  • The anonymity and written format allows people to be less inhibited. Responses can be more frank.
  • It can allow more equal participation because no one needs to wait for others to stop talking before they can speak, This lessens the impact of dominant personalities.
  • You won’t need to think about transcription because the participants do that bit for you!

One of the projects we worked on was to conduct 7 focus groups with 69 pregnant participants in a secure online forum. The research (by Hinton et al 2018*) was about choosing where to give birth and was to include people from a range of different demographics. Because of this, we needed to make sure that the groups were accessible to heavily pregnant participants in different areas of the country. So we held the focus groups in a live chat with people typing their responses to the researcher’s prompts.

Here is our advice based on what we learned:

Choose a good, user-friendly platform: As many of us are learning from working at home during coronavirus lockdown, there are lots of good apps available for online collaboration. You need to think about what features you need. There are plenty of websites that allow you to create your own forums or social networks.  Zoom and Slack are both very good for online chats and have free versions.  Slack allows you to create different ‘channels’ for different topics. They can be accessed on mobile devices and on desktops. Slack can be used in a browser.

Think about data protection: You need to make sure that whatever solution you use is compatible with your data protection policy. All the main technology companies will be GDPR-compliant but your institution may have additional requirements. To preserve anonymity, you should consider creating anonymous log-ins for participants.

Consider timing: Online chats can make it more convenient and accessible for people to take part. For one project we set up forums around different topics that people could dip into at any time. However, we found that conversation was slow to get going. Scheduling chats in the evening ensured that it was convenient as possible for people to take part. The drop-out rate was low. Remember to give plenty of time for everyone to join in because people type at different speeds. Consider that it may be beneficial to do both scheduled and unscheduled chats.

Keep backups: You never know when the technology might have a wobble so we recommend having a back-up plan. Online chat histories might not be available after a certain number of words, so it’s worth having one or two people standing by to copy and paste the chat into a secure back-up.

If you have any questions or would like to talk to us about your project, we’d love to hear from you so please email [email protected]

* Lisa Hinton, Carol Dumelow, Rachel Rowe & Jennifer Hollowell. Birthplace choices: what are the information needs of women when choosing where to give birth in England? A qualitative study using online and face to face focus groups. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth volume 18, Article number: 12 (2018)us


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