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Focus group

Suggested citation: Wascher, D. (2013). Focus group. LIAISE Toolbox. Retrieved date, from

Short Version

Generally, a focus group is a method for collecting qualitative research data through carefully planned group discussions with the purpose of obtaining perceptions of participants in a permissive environment (Morgan 1988). The results help guide the policymakers/ researchers to determine which alternatives are preferred by stakeholder groups. The focus group participants can advantageously be tasked with comparing different proposals and assessing their applicability/suitability in given situations.

Focus groups are appropriate for providing insights into stakeholders' perceptions of what the problem areas are and why they are considered to be problems in relation to other issues. The method can elicit respondents' views on how problems and issues can be addressed and in which contexts it is appropriate to do so. Comments made by the participants can tell about how stakeholders perceive the characteristics of certain issues, and the relative importance and weight of problems and conflicting assumptions in comparison to other issues. Furthermore, it generates good insights into stakeholders' validations of policy proposals.

The tool is useful for investigating stakeholders' views on how plans and programs being implemented work out in reality, and how to close gaps between expectations and actual performance of such policies.

Extended Version

Definition & Objectives and Suitability for the IA process

In IA contexts, focus groups are used to explore stakeholders' views and perceptions of sustainable development related matters with the purpose of reviewing existing policies and supporting agenda setting and policy development (cf Kasemir et al 2003). As a common approach to participatory IA, focus groups may be viewed of as a way to democratise science matters and to empower ordinary citizens (van Asselt and Rotmans 2003) as well as a means to improve the quality of IAs (Jaeger et al 1999).

A focus group can be defined as: 'a group of individuals selected and assembled by [policy-makers or] researchers to discuss and comment on, from personal experience, the topic that is the subject of the […] IA.' Powell and Single (1996:499).

Focus group discussions are guided by a skilled moderator. The group members influence each other by responding to comments made in the discussions.

Conventional focus groups typically require a single (two−hour long or so) session, among a reasonably homogeneous group of people who are unfamiliar with each other. No preparations are made by participants, nor are they expected to develop consensus, solve problems or take decisions on any matters. The method may be applied as stand−alone techniques, or combined with e.g. questionnaires and various quantitative research methods. Also typical for the conventional focus group is that not much (scientific) information is put in the focus group. The aim of the focus group is to get insight into the perceptions of the participants in the group, and the input of scientific knowledge may influence this perception.

IA related focus group approaches are informed stakeholder discussions, since scientific information is provided as stimulus to the discussions (e.g. through computer models, graphic illustrations, scenarios etc.) to enable participants to react to expert knowledge and, based on their own knowledge and views, develop their own opinions and preferences of the topic under consideration. Thus the input from the tools trigger conversations among participants that may have clearer science−policy relevance than conventional group discussions.

Eventually, the focus group analysis in IA studies aim at supporting agenda setting and policy−making and occasionally this involves participants' own statements of policy options and recommendations for future policy−making (Duerrenberger et al 1997, Kasemir et al 2003, Querol et al 1999).

How to apply the method

Group design and dynamics

Focus groups come in numerous shapes and sizes. They may involve different groups of stakeholders, e.g. representatives from interest groups, NGOs, policy−making bodies, or the general public. The stakeholders are addressed in their specific roles and relative to their stakes.

In the IA context, focus groups are typically heterogeneous and sampled, aiming at socio−demographic and ideological diversity among respondents, and thereby enhancing the probability of multiple perspectives and experiences being represented in the assessment.

However, the focus group method is neither bent on involving all relevant actors nor on getting a representative sample of the population. The method is aimed at detecting patterns and trends in perspectives among social groups, which implies that it is entirely possible for the organisers to involve certain social groups while leaving out others.

The number of participants involved may vary between 6-12, but the typical group size is 7 to 10 participants. As a basic rule of thumb, more structured focus groups emphasize the research team's focus, whereas less structured focus groups emphasize the group's interests (Morgan 1998).

Moderating focus groups

The invited participants meet for approximately 1.5 to 2.5 hours once or several times to discuss a theme that is subject of the research. The role of the moderator is to guide the focus group discussion by asking predetermined questions and to ensure there will be a good quality of focus group results that address the research objectives. The moderator is a well−trained professional who works from a predetermined set of discussion topics. If necessary, (s)he intervenes in the process in order to stimulate the discussion. In this context, the moderator has an important task to ensure that the relevant topics remain the focus of attention in the discussion without hindering participants from articulating their views and concerns.


Each focus group session generates a rich amount of qualitative data in a few hours. However, to provide valid data, the focus group process requires very careful planning and timeline. In IA projects, the planning involves the preparation of the scientific input to ensure that it is presented to the stakeholders in a permissive, timely and user−friendly manner. This is particularly important with regard to focus groups with lay people. The steps taken by the organisers involve: Planning, recruiting, moderating, transcribing, analysing and writing up of the results (cf Morgan 1998, Krueger 1998, Duerrenberger et al 1997).

  1. Planning includes developing a schedule for the various steps as well as an investigation of what resources are necessary in each step; potentially involving outside experts, identifying participants on the basis of case−specific selection criteria, inviting participants, developing interview questions, arranging meeting venue and associated logistics.
  2. Recruitment of participants: Recruiting can be a difficult and time−consuming task. Participants may be recruited by the researchers, volunteers or an outside group or professional agency.
  3. Moderation, undertaken by a moderator and backed up by an assistant moderator, who does the recording/note−taking.
  4. Analysis, undertaken by the policy-makers/ researchers. The procedure for the analysis is contingent on the aims of the IA.
  5. Reporting, usually done in writing and sometimes complemented with oral presentations. The quickest types of analysis rely primarily on debriefing sessions and field notes after each focus group.

It should be noted that in many IA focus group projects, transcriptions of audio tapes recorded during the discussions serve as an important output for analysis.

Operational aspects

It is hard to give estimates about the time required to organise a focus group. Generalizations are difficult to make, since the geographical scope and the complexity of the research topic require very diverse focus group approaches and different levels of extensiveness and detail of the analysis and reports.

The entire process of smaller conventional focus group projects (about four meetings) in this vein may require some six weeks, but this only includes a few weeks of reporting. However, in IA projects, several meetings per group, more groups in total, more complex forms of transcription based analysis and reporting are required (cf Duerrenberger et al 1997), at least three months in small IA projects and up to three years or so in larger (cross−regional) projects in which FG research is embedded in a larger research context including other aims and activities.

If investigators intend to carry out focus group research for assessments involving a smaller geographical and topical scope and limited preparations/use of assessment tools, a set of six to eight focus groups can be organised and analysed within four months. In contrast, focus groups in assessment projects that are large in scope (several case study regions in a comparative context), that focus on complex issues (e.g. multidimensional and interdisciplinary aspects of policy options) and that involve assessment methods that need to be tailored to/configured for the focus group context (notably computer models) usually require 24−48 person−months.

It should be noted that other activities of IA projects typically run in parallel with the focus group process, e.g. modelling/configuration of models, scenario development, development of methodological approaches, and policy dialogues.

Combination with other methods

Conventional focus groups are often combined with other participatory methods, e.g. questionnaires, telephone surveys, face−to−face interviews, and sometimes other group dialogues e.g. citizen panels. In order to provide meaningful stakeholder assessments of sustainability policy issues, combinations of stakeholder techniques as well as other analytical tools have proven vital in many IA−related projects. Focus groups are typically combined with:

  • integrated assessment models (e.g. IMAGE)
  • Geographical Information System (GIS) in participatory modelling (GIS−P) and community mapping exercises on air quality assessments
  • Citizens’ juries.

Data requirements

Data input

Conventional focus groups usually rely on the information that is provided by participants, whereas more recent focus groups typically rely on some kind of scientific input that is presented during the meeting to support a process of social learning among participants. The scientific nature of the data input typically gives rise to arguments about their validity and are open to challenge and questioning by the participants. In brief terms, IA focus groups can be seen as discussions about arguments, not just statements of preferences (although these are also important ingredients in the focus group discussions).

The most commonly applied tool in an IA focus group is a computer model, or scenarios generated from models, and this is often complemented with written hand−outs, oral presentations by invited experts and the like. Apart from modeling and scenario tools, so far there appears to be few attempts to explore the combination of various methods (e.g. CBA/ MCA).  

Data output

The focus group discussion is recorded in several ways: by field notes (from assistant moderator), by an audio recorder and sometimes also a video camera. Together with the notes and transcripts, flip charts, collages and, more rarely, written reports are outputs for analysis. The data may be analysed manually or with existing computer techniques and usually this is done by coding exercises.

Strengths & weaknesses


· The focus group technique is a qualitative method that generates a rich understanding of stakeholder perceptions, experiences and beliefs.

· It is an adaptable method that suits a myriad of policy contexts.

· It can generate a diversity of perspectives and experiences that are shared and reflected upon.

· It is useful for exploring consumers' and users' attitudes toward products and marketing strategies.

· It is useful for identifying stakeholders' perspectives of goals, which in turn helps out in planning and designing projects that are likely to produce the desired outcome.

· The tool is good at generating assessments of successes and failures of projects and policies.

· In contrast with what is sometimes claimed, focus groups appear to be rather useful for investigating sensitive topics.

· The technique can serve an important role during the first stage in project development (e.g. prior to survey questionnaires), but is not limited to such a role.


· To generate good and relevant results, the focus group process requires careful planning.

· It generates qualitative data that are rich and quite challenging to analyse. As in all qualitative research methods, the robustness of the results depends on careful validation by multiple members of the research team, and ideally (in larger studies) validation across different research teams.

· In complex assessment projects, the method becomes relatively expensive and time−consuming process from beginning to end.

· Focus group results may not yield policy relevant outcomes per se. Sustainability policy assessments require a more comprehensive research framework.

· The method requires good skills and certain personal attributes of the moderator to generate a good and spontaneous but focused discussion among participants.

· Quantification and strict generalisation to larger populations is not possible. Focus groups are indicative for the specific social group that they are representing.

· Not suitable for ranking exercises. There is often a reluctance to rank order of priority of problems among especially ordinary citizens.


A number of software tools is available for online focus groups, particularly for marketing research.


IA Practices

Framework for Participatory Impact Assessment (FoPIA)

A Framework for Participatory Impact Assessment is presented for use within European land use policy impact assessment. The context and rationale for the development of the Framework are outlined, both in the context of European policy making and within a project called "Sustainability Impact Assessment: Tools for Environmental, Social and Economic Effects of Multifunctional Land Use in European Regions". A detailed description of the sequence of methods that make up the Framework is provided, followed by illustrations and details of the practical application and results from a case study in Malta, where the Framework was used to carry out an impact assessment of biodiversity policies. After reporting on the reflections of the research team and valuable feedback provided by Maltese stakeholders, the Framework’s ability to enhance the quality, credibility and legitimacy of European policy impact assessment is discussed.

Morris, J. B., V. Tassone, R. De Groot, M. Camilleri, and S. Moncada. (2011). A Framework for Participatory Impact Assessment: involving stakeholders in European policy making, a case study of land use change in Malta. Ecology and Society 16(1): 12. URL:



Duerrenberger, G., Behringer J., Dahinden, U., Gerger, Å., Kasemir, B., Querol, C., Tabara, D., Schühle, R., Toth, F., van Asselt, M., Vassilarou, D. Willi, N., Jäger, C. (1997) Focus Groups in Integrated Assessment: A Manual for Participatory Research. In ULYSSES Working Paper WP−97−2. Darmstadt: Darmstadt University of Technology.

Jaeger, C.C., Schuele, R., Kasemir, B. (1998) Focus Groups in Integrated Assesment: A Micro−Cosmos for Reflexive Modernization. In Darier, E., C.C. Jaeger, B. Kasemir, R. Schuele, S.Shackley, B. Wynne (1998) Contributions to Participatory Integrated Assessment. ULYSSES working paper 98−1. Darmstadt: Darmstadt University of Technology.

Jaeger, C.C., B. Wynne, Gerger, Å., Funtowicz, S., Giner, S., Giaoutzi, M. (1999) ULYSSES – Urban Lifestyles, Sustainability and Integrated Environmental Assessment. Final Report prepared for DG XII of the European Commission under the Environment and Climate Programme. Darmstadt: Darmstadt University of Technology.

Kasemir, B.; Gardner, M., Jäger, J., Jaeger, C.C. (eds.) (2003) Public Participation in Sustainability Science. A Handbook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kasemir, B; Dahinden, U., Gerger Swartling, Å., Schuele, R., Tabara, D., Jäger, C. (1999) 'Citizens’ Visions of the Future: Collage processes in the first part of IA−Focus Groups'. In ULYSSES Final Summary Report. Prepared for DG XII of the European Commission under the Environment and Climate Programme. Darmstadt University of Technology, Darmstadt, pp. 39−59.

Krueger, R.A. (1998) Moderating Focus Groups, Focus Group Kit Vol 4. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Morgan, D. (1988) Focus Groups as Qualitative Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Morgan, D. (1998) Planning Focus Groups. The Focus Group Kit Vol 2. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Powell R.A. and Single H.M. (1996) 'Focus Groups'. In International Journal of Quality in Health Care, Vol. 8, No. 5: 499−504.

Rotmans, J and Van Asselt, M.B.A. (2002) ‘Integrated Assessment: Current Practices and Challenges for the Future’. In Abaza and Barannzini (eds) Implementing Sustainable Development: Integrated Assessment and Participatory Decision−Making Processes. United Nations Environment Programme, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd: 78−116.

Van Asselt, M.B.A. and Rotmans, J. (2003) 'From Projects to Program in Integrated Assessment Research'. In Kasemir, B., Gardner, M., Jäger, J., Jaeger, C.C. (eds.) (2003) Public Participation in Sustainability Science. A Handbook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Electronic Focus Group (eFocus Groups)

This text is based on Pedrosa, T., Pereira, A. G. (2006). Participatory tools. SustainabilityA-Test. (29 November 2013).


Electronic focus groups (eFG) are internet platforms where virtual moderated debates and discussions can take place. They have a similar role in assessment processes as standard focus groups (e.g. to explore social actors' perspectives on sustainability issues regarding a certain policy). However, in eFG the participants can be located in any place in the world with internet access and the discussion is normally done in a written format. In essence, electronic focus groups, are private internet sessions where participants and moderators are invited as in ordinary focus groups, according to specific criteria. The groups should have a maximum of 10 to 15 persons. The discussion chat feature can be complemented with other collaborative features such as a white board or a file exchange area. eFocus Groups are an instance of information technology based participatory techniques.


The participants and moderators are all invited people. The recruitment follows similar rules to those applied in other participatory methods, namely focus groups. Each person is provided with a login access to the virtual room and instructions on how to proceed. They meet in the virtual room at a pre−defined date and time for 1.5 to 2.5 hours. As in any group research setting, the moderator plays a crucial role and should be familiar with the discussion platform, having good typing skills. Like in standard focus groups the moderator has a discussion guiding document with the relevant topics for discussion. The moderator should pay special attention to the rhythm of discussion in order to avoid message overflow and simultaneous discussions among participants. The discussion is recorded automatically and it is immediately available for analysis.


There are three general phases in an eFG:

  1. Planning, the Moderator prepares the discussion agenda and the participants are invited/recruited;
  2. Venue, the participants and moderators meet in the virtual room and the discussion takes place at a pre−defined date and time;
  3. Reporting, analysis of results by researchers taking, in this case, advantage of the fact that discussion is already available in written format.

Evaluation of eFocus Groups

Policy processes

Like most of the participatory methods, the eFG is more effective at early stages of the policy process, providing (like standard focus groups) insights into social actors’ perceptions about the relevant sustainability issues. The tool is not specifically designed for deliberation on policy options but rather to promote “active involvement” and initiate or develop necessary debates with relevant social actors about the issues at stake.

Operational aspects

The method performs quite well in terms of operational aspects when compared to other participatory tools. Usually participatory methods tend to be very time consuming and costs can be high (depending on the geographic scope of participants and other logistic issues). With the eFG each participant needs to have access to a computer with Internet connection and some computer skills similar to those needed to use chat rooms and “messengers”. No installations of software are necessary from the "client" side.

Combination with other methods

Experiences with this tool as part of a package of tools are unknown. The tool has been used as a stand−alone discussion platform. In the case of the eFG, documents exchanged should follow principles related to communication of scientific or technical issues to audiences which do not hold specific relevant expertise in scientific or technical terms.

Strengths and weaknesses

The costs of this method are considerably less when compared to face−to−face participatory methods.

Furthermore, the geographic scope of participants can be worldwide without an increase in costs (anyone in the world with access to a computer with an internet connection can participate). Another strength of this tool is that no transcription procedure is necessary.

A weakness of this tool is that there is no possibility to view facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. Furthermore, people are more used to discuss issues by talking rather than writing. The digital divide can exclude certain segments of the population; the participants must obviously have computer access and a basic level of computer literacy. Finally, typing skills affect the extent of participation.


Beierle, T.C. (2002) Democracy On−Line. An Evaluation of the National Dialogue on Public Involvement in EPA Decisions.

De Marchi, B., Funtowicz, S. & Guimarães Pereira, Â. (2001): e2−governance: electronic and extended. Proceedings of Conference Innovations and e−society. Challenges for technology assessment. Berlin.

Morgan, D. L. (1998): The Focus Group Guidebook. London, SAGE Publications.

Schneider S.J., Kerwin J., Frechtling J. and Vivari B.A (2002). Characteristics of the Discussion in Online and Face−to−Face Focus Groups. Social Science Computer Review, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 31−42(12)

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