Sticking your neck out- choosing focus groups or individual interviews

GiraffesQualitative research provides researchers and evaluators with detailed information about attitudes, views, behaviour and preferences. Two common qualitative research techniques are focus groups (group discussions) and one-on-one interviews (also called in-depth interviews).

The interactive nature of both of these approaches means that their success is dependent on the skills of the interviewer or moderator. There are merits of both approaches, but how do you know which approach to use for your social research or evaluation project?

Focus groups

Focus groups (also known as group discussions) are in-depth interviews carried out with a group of respondents. In addition to the increased number of respondents they differ from individual interviews in that they involve interaction between the participants. The views of contribution of one person may become the stimulus for another person’s contribution or may initiate discussion, debate and even arguments. The interaction between group members is crucial to their success, as is the style of facilitation and the skills of the facilitator to keep the discussion on topic, within the time frame and giving every participant the same opportunity to contribute.

Some of the key advantages of focus groups over one-one interviews include:

1. Cost. Focus groups are less expensive than one-on-one interviews when viewed on a per-interview basis.

2. Time efficiency.  Focus groups are less time consuming than in-dept interviews. Typically, in the time it takes to conduct one interview of 60 minutes, a focus group of 8-10 people could be consulted.

3. Greater interaction. Focus groups allow more interaction between participants, and this often generates discussion that may open up a range of topic areas that had not been anticipated yet are relevant to the topic.

In-depth interviews

Also sometimes called one-on-one interviews or depth interviews, this approach involves interviews conducted face to face, in which the subject matter of the interview is explored in detail using an unstructured and flexible approach. As with all qualitative research, in-depth interviews are used to develop a deeper understanding of complex topics, specialist topics or subjects of a sensitive nature.

Advantages of in-depth interviews over focus groups.

1. Individual focus. The respondent is the centre of attention and can therefore be probed at length about a given topic to explore ideas that may be critical to the research or evaluation. The respondent cannot hide behind the comments of others in the group; instead, they are exposed and forced to provide their own input.

2.  Minimal peer pressure. Group pressure is eliminated, so the respondents reveal what he or she actually think rather than conforming to a consensus view of what seems acceptable to the rest of the group.

3. Sensitive topics. Respondents are more likely to talk about sensitive topics when on their own, and may hesitate if in the company of a group of people.

4. Simpler recruitment. Recruitment for in-depth interview respondents is a simpler process, as it deals with one person at a time. In addition, there is more flexibility in terms of where and when the interview may be conducted. Sometimes in-depth interviews may take place at the workplace of the respondent. This is particularly useful if respondents are busy professionals with limited availability.

The long and short of it is, whether you choose to use focus groups or in-depth interviews depends on a combination of factors. It is important to consider what you trying to achieve through the research, as well as any budget, time and practical constraints. Then you can be sure you have chosen the most suitable approach.

By the way, I believe giraffes prefer to be consulted in groups. But it can just be tricky getting them all around a table together for a focus group.

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