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How to run a focus group

This section details our experience of running focus groups during the development of Prosper and provides suggestions on how you could run focus groups at your own institution. The emphasis is on holding focus groups with postdocs but many of the key points also apply to other stakeholders, such as managers of researchers. 

Why run a focus group?

Focus groups can be a really effective way to get a group of users to share common challenges, needs or feedback. We used focus groups in two ways;

  • to identify the needs of different user groups
  • for evaluation

Running focus groups

Focus groups can be used to generate ideas or uncover and clarify the shared needs of a user group.  We ran a series of in-person focus groups with postdocs and PIs/managers of researchers to uncover each groups needs as we began work on Prosper. This feedback informed the plans for the rest of the project. Focus groups can also be used effectively for evaluation of programmes, schemes and workshops that you put on.

Focus groups:

  • allow you to get feedback from the end users (e.g. postdocs, managers of researchers, employers) on specific themes and points of interest
  • provide the participants the space to give their views on different topics enabling them to feel part of the design or co-creation process
  • allow you to be responsive to change and to take on feedback as you develop your programmes and initiatives
  • supplement other forms of evaluation such as surveys and interviews. They allow you to develop themes that arise in surveys, get new ideas and shape more in-depth interviews with individuals. It is often the conversations that take place in a focus group that provide the most insight.

1. Identify the theme of your focus group

You may know a ‘hot-topic’ or theme you wish to address in a focus group. If you’re unsure of what the theme should be, why not have some informal conversations with individual members of the audience you wish to engage? Alternatively, you may be able to identify topics arising from your own evaluation or institutional wide strategies or survey results (such as Vitae’s CEDARS).

2. Plan your session/s

Format: Decide if you wish to hold the focus group in person, online or a hybrid of the two. Think of what will appeal most to your users/audience. See sections 5a and 5b for more details.

Room booking (if in-person or hybrid): Ensure the room meets your requirements (has the right equipment for hosting a hybrid session) and can be arranged to encourage discussion (isn’t fixed lecture theatre seating).

Duration: We recommend keeping focus groups to a maximum duration of 1 hour.

Set your questions: We recommend a maximum of three to four questions. This should allow time for all participants to discuss and share their thoughts.

Facilitator/s: Do you want a facilitator plus a note-taker? Do you need a facilitator, chair (for example to ensure virtual/in-person participants are given equal chance to speak) and note-taker? See sections 5a and 5b for more details.

3. Identify desired participants

Ideally you are looking to get five or six (up to a maximum of ten) individuals to talk about the topic of interest. It helps if they have been pre-selected from a longer list based on prior information (such as survey results) which suggests that they have views on the subject being discussed.

Aim to get a representatively diverse group with a balance of gender and fair representation across the faculties (if working with a whole institution), schools or departments. You should be aware of equality, diversity and inclusion, and getting a range of opinions from stakeholders.

4. Invite participants

Send an initial email ideally three or four weeks in advance of the date for the focus group. If you’re aiming for five or six individuals to be part of the focus group, you can invite more at the start with the expectation that some will decline or drop out.

The alternative is to start with five or six names and once you know who has declined you can select others to invite to get up to the full complement. This second approach allows you to keep control of the balance and make-up of the group, but it does require a bit more effort on your part.

Take a look at our example email text , which we used to invite participants to focus groups during the development of Prosper.

Note that you can use a link to an online poll (such as Doodle) to allow candidates to choose from a pre-selected list of dates and times. Providing this flexibility often ensures that more people accept your invitation. But again, it is a bit more work to administer.

5.a Arrangements in advance of an in-person focus group

Once you have confirmed who the participants are, send them an email (see communications) to thank them for accepting, and share the chosen date/time (if you’d allowed them to pick from a range) and location and outline the next steps. Send the information in the calendar invite too.

Let them know the session format, repeating the theme and stating that you will provide prompts on three or four points but the main aim is to hear their thoughts.

If you intend to record the session in anyway, let the participants know the purpose. We’d suggest that focus group recordings only be used for notetaking purposes and/or getting anonymised quotes, as otherwise discussion can be inhibited.

Send a reminder email (see communications) one week before the event reiterating the key information and asking participants to let you know if they can no longer attend.

Decide whether you will just have one facilitator or more than one, particularly if note taking is required.

For in-person focus groups, you may need to book a room for the date and time agreed well in advance. Ensure you book the room 30 mins before and after the session to give some space either side for set-up/tidy-up/unforeseen circumstances.

You should consider bringing, securing or checking the room has the following:

  • An omnidirectional microphone (such as a conference microphone) and laptop if you intend to get an audio recording
  • A projector if you want to show the main discussion points of the focus group
  • Post-it notes, pens and a flip chart if you want the participants to share anything more during or at the end of the session
  • A timer to ensure you keep to time
  • Sticky labels for name tags
  • Refreshments (tea, coffee, including non-caffeinated options, water) for participants, if possible
  • A register for people to sign in
  • Notes with prompts for facilitators
  • Equality, diversity and inclusion forms (anonymous) if you wish to track or report on this

5.b Arrangements in advance of a virtual focus group

After confirming the attendees, send them an email (see communications) to thank them for accepting and let them know the selected date and time. Give them the details of the login for the virtual platform. Re-iterate these details in a calendar invitation to each participant. Tell them the format, repeating the theme and saying that you will provide prompts on three or four points but the main aim is to hear their thoughts.

If you plan to make a recording of the session, let the participants know the purpose. We’d suggest that focus group recordings only be used for notetaking purposes and/or getting anonymised quotes, as otherwise discussion can be inhibited.

Include a link to an anonymous equality, diversity and inclusion survey if you wish to report on this.

Send a reminder email one week before the event (see communications), reiterating the key information and asking to be informed if any participant can no longer attend.

Decide whether you will just have one facilitator or more than one, particularly for note taking purposes.

Running the focus group: structure and timetable

You can find an example plan for a focus group that we ran with postdocs during the Prosper pilot career development programmes below.

  1. Introduction – the purpose of the focus group (5 mins).

Overview of why the focus group has been convened and what you would like to get out of it. As facilitator it’s really important to set the expectations out clearly at the beginning of the session, as an example ‘Thank you for all coming to this session. This focus group is due to run for 60 minutes, we have three main questions we hope to cover during this time. In order for us to keep to time and hear from all participants we may have to interject to move the discussion on. Please don't be offended if we have to do so, we will be available at the end of the session and also can be contacted afterwards if anything has been missed.’

  1. What is currently on offer? Current status (15 mins)

Get an understanding of the experiences of the participants so far. This could be something they have engaged with before that is related to the theme or something you have asked them to consider in advance of the session. In your notes, keep two or three prompts for discussion if conversation isn’t flowing.

  1. What would you like to see going forwards? Future improvements (15 mins)

Ask for their ideas on what more they would like to see related to the theme. Keep some prompts to refer to.

  1. How can we make any changes? Implementing change (15 mins)

Encourage them to elaborate on what they would like to see with specific suggestions for how these changes could be implemented. Use some prompts if necessary.

  1. Other thoughts/suggestions (10 mins)

This is the chance for participants to bring up anything else related to the theme.

  1. Wrap-up

Thank participants for their time and say that all of their comments and suggestions will be considered carefully. Offer them the chance to share any further thoughts that we did not have time to cover.

If in-person, they could do this on post-it notes immediately at the end of the session. If not, you could provide a link to an online whiteboard such as Mural/Jamboard/Padlet where they can add more comments about the theme in question.

After the focus group

  • Send a thank you email (see example communications) to the attendees. You can also include the link to the online whiteboard for further comments.
  • Email those who’d registered but not attended to ask if they’ve any thoughts they’d like to share via the online whiteboard.
  • Go through your notes or make notes from session recording/s. Pull together themes that emerged.
  • Consider writing a report to convey the important details of the focus group: what was the subject of the focus group and why did you run it, what was the make-up of the participants, key themes discussed (with quotes) and what next (download a report template here). 

Communication examples

Example email communication templates for focus groups

The following emails were sent by Prosper team members before and after conducting a focus group.

Example Prosper focus group structure and timetable

Here we’ve provided an example plan for a virtual focus group that Prosper conducted with postdocs from the first pilot at the University of Liverpool in October 2021. The topic of this focus group was time management and engaging with Prosper. We had two facilitators at each session.


  • Do consider holding separate focus groups for each user group (for example we held separate session for PIs and postdocs)
  • Do set the participants expectations from the start that you’ll be facilitating so that everyone has an opportunity to contribute, which may mean you have to move the conversation along.
  • Do aim for a diverse representation of your users (EDI)
  • Do aim for a fair representation across all of the faculties/department/disciplinary areas
  • Do decide ahead of time if you intend to record and transcribe the focus group or if you will use a note taker. This decision has some implications. If you decide to record and transcribe you need to;
    • arrange or book audio recording equipment and ideally test it in the location the focus group will be held ahead of time
    • run the session in a way to minimise the amount of cross-talking
    • after the session transcribe the audio - that this can be very time consuming (or have a cost implication if you get a GDPR/data protection aligned third party to do this)
  • Don’t have more than 3 questions you want to cover in a single focus group
  • Don’t have more than 10 participants in any one session
  • Don’t have focus groups scheduled for longer than one-hour duration
  • Don’t be too directive or quick to prompt. Leave silence and space for participants to share their thoughts.
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