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July, 2020

Conducting remote online focus groups in times of COVID-19

A focus group is a qualitative research method based on group discussions, beliefs and opinions, with a focus on what people say vs what they do. It’s a quick research technique to collect data to discover trends and opportunities. In a regular focus group, 7–9 participants are invited to the discussion which is guided by a moderator, a session lasts about 2 hours.

COVID-19 is currently affecting the execution of regular focus groups, as we need to ensure social distancing. We recommend running focus groups remotely, with all the participants in the video call and the moderator leading the discussion.

Remote focus groups can be tricky, but the challenges can quickly be overcome if you are prepared to adjust a few things and the results can be comparable to as in-person groups.

Here are some quick tips:

1. Adjust, consider and plan more

  • Limit the number of each group to 4–5 participants, to ensure there is opportunity for all participants to have their say, remain engaged, and reduce strain on the moderator. More effort might be needed to make sure you recruit the right profiles and sample (mainstream vs extremes), or you could consider running additional online focus groups to ensure you cover all your recruitment profiles. In some cases, running a focus group remotely makes it possible to recruit participants across the entire country, as they do not have to come to one specific research location.
  • An online confidentiality agreement can be sent to each participant and signed ahead of time, or gathered online using a tool such as Signable. Alternatively, read the agreement before you start the session, and ask each participant to agree by voice and record the answer: Do you agree to…? YES, NO.
  • Incentives can be paid easily through bank transfer or with an online voucher (e.g. Amazon gift card) if agreed upfront. Paypal Money Transfer is a good option for international focus groups. Alternatively, the session recruiter can often administer payments for you, but will charge a fee for this and may require this money to be paid to them in advance.
  • Keep session time to 60–90 minutes online, instead of more common time of 2 hours for in-person groups. There is not a hard rule about this, but 2 hours is just that little bit harder for people to stay focused and there may also be distractions for some working from home.

2. Find the right online platform and tools

Video-conferencing tools

The tools you chose should allow face to face interaction with the participants, video recording and streaming. Ideally participants can access the session by clicking on a link without need to install any software. There are a few options available on the market: Zoom, GoToMeeting, Teams, WebEx, Hangouts are some widely used examples.

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                   Video conferencing tools can help you set-up focus groups remotely (e.g. GoToMeeting)

It’s sometimes useful to break out groups into sub groups or private spaces and this is a common feature of many video conferencing tools. They do require careful management. For instance, it’s always worth keeping a phone number handy if any participants struggle to reenter the main session.

When moderating focus-group related to healthcare some participants might want to keep a private meeting space preserving their anonymity and privacy. Some tools allow the participants to use an avatar to preserve privacy. It might be a bit difficult to keep track on who said what: https://www.liebermanresearch.com/sensor/

Collaboration tools

There are interesting collaborative tools to support remote focus groups, such a Whimsical, Miro and Mural. These tools are not meant as an alternative to the videoconferencing tool, but can be used to do some brief exercises with the participants during the session. They replace in a certain way the whiteboard or flipchart that is used in the sessions.

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             Brief exercises with participants can be completed using collaboration tools (e.g. Miro)

Some example exercises are collective brainstorm activities in which the participants write down ideas on virtual post-it notes, plotting post-it notes in a matrix or map to prioritize items, or simply keeping track of inspiration and solutions that come up during the session in a visual way. The moderator sends the participants a link to access a visual workspace where they can collaborate simultaneously or simply observe while the moderator is using the virtual whiteboard (e.g. writing notes, plotting post-it’s on a map).

The tools generally work well and can add real dynamism to the session, but time taken in preparation of these exercises is always well spent. Where sub group exercises are happening during the session, an additional pair of eyes to observe and facilitate can also really help.

Survey tools

Besides the collaborative tools, it is also possible to ask participants to individually respond to a few questions by completing an online survey (e.g. Surveymonkey, Google forms) and share the results in real-time to the group as input for a discussion. Or use online polling tools to keep people engaged at key points (e.g. Pollev, Mentimeter).

The polls can be used in different ways, depending on the needs of the session. They can be used alongside collaboration tools, as a mechanism to keep users engaged, and gather real data for discussion. However, a different approach is possible where a less collaborative approach is needed, for example where qualitative data is more important in gathering feedback on a concept idea. In this instance, a less dynamic format can involve more users (over 20), with data primarily coming from polls, questionnaires and online discussion.

3. Adapt the discussion guide

  • The discussion guide needs to be written for online. In order to keep the time slot narrow down the discussion guide to 3 or 5 key topics
  • Include enough time for introductions and for participants to become comfortable in the session to ensure individuals engage with one another
  • Carefully consider how you will share information or artefacts/stimuli with each other. Will you ask people to have a note-pad with them so they can hold up short answers to questions? Will you share your screen? Will you need others to share their screens? Will you use online collaborative tools? Will you share stimuli before the session? Can you achieve your goals through discussion only? All of these options are viable, make sure you decide beforehand and familiarise with any new technology and instruct clients as appropriate before the session.

4. Plan for a moderator and a note-taker

All the usual skills for moderating groups are still needed so make sure you have a skilled moderator. Above the usual skills, the moderator should not be afraid of technological challenges. The moderator should be familiar with the technology in case any participants are experiencing trouble for example, can’t hear the moderator.

Always have a notetaker to ensure the moderator can focus on the group, and keep eyes on the monitor. It is more difficult to follow the discussion if not watching all the time.

5. International focus groups

Get a simultaneous interpreter onboard. The interpreter translates the moderator and participant’s words in real-time and online. There might be a slight delay before the interpreter starts interpreting and also when interpretation is online and depending on the bandwidth, there might be a slight delay (a few seconds) because of the simultaneous Interpretation platform through their laptop or desktop computer. Some interpreters won’t feel comfortable with real-time remote live interpretations, in order to do it they’ll need a quality headset and microphone, and be familiar with video conferencing software.

Some Remote Simultaneous Interpretation (RSI) like www.interprenet.net/ are very efficient and offer the service in many languages, these types of tools are very useful when executing international usability testing as well.

6. Test the technology with the participants ahead of the group interview

Ensure participants are able to use the selected platform by sending them a test link to try before the session. Some platforms provide a test link. Alternatively, use different links for each group so that they can test out the link using the same meeting ID as the one for the research to reduce any confusion.

Participants should test the link on the platform and on the device they will participate with in the exact location to make sure there are no issues including security issues which might stop them from downloading some plug-ins. This should be done well before the session time in case troubleshooting is required.Consider whether the recruiter can manage this process.

7. Conduct the group discussions

All the usual skills for conducting a group session apply but you might also consider:

  • Asking participants to sign in 10–15 minutes before the session so you have time to chat with each participant to ensure cameras, mics etc., all working.
  • Prepare cards for each participant with the participants name and key facts, it will help keeping track and direct appropriate questions.
  • It helps to order the cards in front of you to mirror the arrangement on the screen (if possible, some platforms rearrange depending on who is talking).
  • If necessary, take issues “off-line” in discussion with participants at the end of the session.

8. Manage remote stakeholders

When working on international projects, because of the time difference between you and your clients, clients might only be able to watch certain sessions so you might do a more detailed end of day debrief than you would normally do.

Stream sessions that are being watched live. Recordings are usually available to download an hour or so after the session and are usually better quality for viewing.

If you have live observers who may want to ask clarifying questions, select a channel outside of the platform for testing, e.g, Slack or WhatsApp and allow people to leave questions there. You can build points in the discussion where you ask any questions that have banked up. Often you will only get to these questions towards the end of the discussion.

9. Collect data

Mostly this will be the same as for an in-person group. If you use online collaborations tools to gather input during the sessions you’ll have that content, rather than collecting pieces of paper during the session.

10. Report and present results

Not different from any reporting apart from time difference when working on international projects.

Keep Calm and Carry On running Focus Groups!

Overall, if you’re well prepared, the challenge of conducting a remote focus group can be overcome easily and the results are very rewarding. This technique is now increasingly being adopted across the globe, so it’s time to give it a try, if you haven’t done it yet.