Tips for running a successful Focus Group

A new approach

Too often, focus group sessions produce many words but few actionable results. This approach enables a group of people to identify the issues or problems facing customers, a program, project or organisation, and rank these issues in order of importance for follow-up action. It uses three tools:

Silent brainstorming

Affinity diagram


Time and materials required

Each session usually takes one hour or less to complete. 

Materials: Index or record cards (75X125mm) or message cube slips (50X50mm); flip-chart or whiteboard and markers; a table or other cleared surface; and a supply of pens or pencils.

Recommended group size

Between eight and 15 people.

Preparation for the organiser or facilitator

Decide on the question to be posed to the focus group, for example: “What are the major issues facing our customers?” 

Preparation for the participants

Advise participants that they should feel completely free to express their opinions. Assure them that the views expressed will not be identified with individual participants. Rather, the overall views of the group will be summarised and revealed to appropriate stakeholders. 

How to use the exercise

A. First, identify the purpose of the focus group, for example: “To gain a better understanding of the issues facing our customers.”

B. Next, describe the first tool to be used, i.e. silent brainstorming, which:

Gives everyone time to think

Allows everyone to share their ideas with the group

Captures the ideas for future reference

Permits the ideas to be sorted into clusters for analysis.

C. Give each participant five index cards (or message cube slips). 

D. Next, tell the participants that they will be writing on the index cards, and ask them:

To write legibly (the group will be using them later)

To only write one idea or response per card

To be brief (only a few words; no essays, please)

Not to reveal what they have written until invited by the facilitator to do so

To listen carefully to what the others say.

E. Then, pose the question that the group is intended to consider, and ask them to think about the question and write the first response that comes to mind on the first card (only one idea on the first card at this stage).

F. Next, go around the group one-by-one and ask each participant to reveal what they have written on their card.

G. Then, ask the group to again think about the question posed, and what the other members of the group have said, and write on the second card either an idea that no-one else has mentioned or an expansion of what someone else has said.

H. Continue this process through successive rounds until no-one has any more ideas to add. Any member of the group may say “pass”, if they have no more ideas to contribute. Usually four or five rounds will be sufficient to exhaust the ideas. Ask for the cards to be passed to a central point.

I. Then, explain the next tool, the affinity diagram, which is designed to gather the group’s ideas into logical clusters based on the relationship among the ideas.

J. Next, call for three volunteers to construct the affinity diagram, while the remaining members of the group gather around to observe and offer suggestion to the volunteers.

K. The volunteers spread the cards over the table (or other cleared surface) and look for common themes among the cards, usually five to seven in total. They make header cards for each common theme, using one or two words to describe the theme.

L. The volunteers then sort the cards into clusters under the header cards.

M. Once all of the cards have been sorted, explain the final tool, multi-voting, which is a way of ranking the common themes in order of importance to the group.

N. The facilitator or assistant then writes the common themes in a column on the left-hand side of the whiteboard or flipchart and draws a grid similar to that shown below:

Common Theme









































































































O. Each participant is given an additional index card (if needed) and asked to write the same column of common themes on the card (but not the grid).

P. Then, read out the content of the cards under each header card, asking the group to pay careful attention.

Q. Next, tell the participants that each of them has ten votes. Then, ask them to allocate these ten votes on their cards in accordance with the importance they think each of the common themes deserves. A zero vote is allowed, but no half votes. Each participant’s votes must total ten.

R. Next, go around the group, asking each member to read out their votes. These are recorded on the grid on the whiteboard or flip chart.

S. Finally, add up each row to derive a score for each common theme and rank them in accordance with the scores, i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.

Limitations of this approach

It represents an initial step in a longer process to formulate solutions to the issues or problems identified. Additional tools that may be useful in formulating solutions include:

Cause and effect diagram

Force field diagram

Action statement

Experience with this approach

It works particularly well in a situation where issues or problems need to be identified and a priority assigned to them before developing solutions.

It allows immediate feedback of the findings to the participants, but it is useful for the facilitator to write up the results for future reference and problem-solving efforts. The following table can be used for this purpose:

Common Theme



Interpretation from the Cards





























Tips for the facilitator

Make the purpose of the focus group clear at the outset, including what will be done with the results. 

Assure everyone that individual responses will not be revealed to anyone; the results will appear in summary form only.

Ask everyone to be completely candid in their responses.

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