Focus Groups 101: Get out the megaphone

A look at our project in Colima and some tips for designing and directing focus groups.

By Hannah Matthews

Over the past couple of months, Cody and I along with the IPCO (Institución de Planeación de Colima) office have been in the process of conducting a study on a local park, las Huertas del Cura. You can see Cody’s first blog post which discusses his original encounter with the park and the story of how Huertas del Cura came to be 5 years ago when another Canadian intern was working with IPCO. However, since that project, the park’s facilities and ambiance have steadily declined. The park is still in use, for football games, zumba classes, fishing in the small pond, and people just strolling and enjoying some time in nature. But these activities are limited because of how the facilities have been maintained and how this lack of maintenance has brought issues for the park’s environment. This is a troubling finding for IPCO considering it was one of the organization’s first projects to come to fruition. Cody was very curious about learning more about these problems and quickly gained the interest of the rest of us at IPCO into investigating possible solutions from this space.

We began our study by having different members of the team go to Huertas del Cura to document observations for an hour each during different times of the day. In my own observations, I noticed lots of transit through the park, people on their way to school or work. As well, many children came to play while adults came to exercise or walk their dogs. Some parts of Huertas del Cura still hold lots of life throughout the day but it also possesses spaces that remain untouched by most. I never felt comfortable walking behind the soccer stadium due to abandoned rooms where I observed drug usage, a space for the homeless, and overall state of filth from garbage and human excrement. This is probably the most extreme example of the disarray of the park but because of these conditions, the park has attracted petty crime and feelings of insecurity for its users.

These observations allowed the IPCO team to begin forming questions to ask the users about their experiences and opinions on las Huertas del Cura. During my Masters, I had directed my own interviews and focus groups which allowed me some background when creating these types of research plans. But in that case, I had easier access to my participants because I was working in the organizations where they were already involved and they had gotten to know me. In the case of the park, we were strangers asking people to speak with us. On a personal note, this was a challenge because I have difficulty engaging new people in discussion due to my own anxiety and feeling as if my intrusion might bother them. I had to overcome this anxiety very quickly when we began the survey portion of our research. Through both practice and self-talk, I completed surveys with Cody which proved to be great success in hearing about the neighbours’ experiences and opinions on the park.

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Some points on surveys:

  • What questions do you want answered?
    • It’s good to have a project objective in order to form what type of questions you will to ask.
    • It’s also important to consider how you are going to design your questions. Open ended, tables with rankings, yes or no? There are multiple options to choose from. We did a mix of questions since ranking would allow for easier analysis of data as well as open ended questions so people could provide feedback and opinions that set questions would not allow them to elaborate on. Open ended questions added time to our surveys but helped us get detailed data.
  • How and when are you going to distribute your surveys?
    • This may depend on how big your survey sample is but our team decided to do surveys door to door. This had the advantage of making contact with people and getting the chance to personally explain our initiative. However, door to door takes up a lot of time. Even with a team of six people with 15 surveys each, it took at least an hour to complete five surveys.
    • Be strategic when choosing a time and place for your surveys. Because we were going door to door with neighbours, it was ideal to do our surveys before dinner time when people would be home from school or work. And because of the location in Mexico, we had to consider when people would be ‘out and about’ because of the summer heat.
    • Furthermore, the way in which the surveys are distributed may impact which groups of people are included or excluded in your data. We only surveyed the surrounding neighbourhoods however this could exclude other park users who do not live in the vicinity.
  • How are you going to conduct surveys in person?
    • Our surveys were part oral and part written depending on who we were talking with. We gave the option to people if they wanted us to recite the survey to them orally and write down their answers or allow them to complete the survey by writing the answers themselves. It is important to consider that some people may have trouble reading or writing, so in order to facilitate to their needs offer them alternative methods. However, it is also important to consider that reading surveys to them orally could cause people to respond differently since the researcher is present, which could alter their answers.

Despite the surveys being a time consuming activity, it was very rewarding speaking with neighbours about their perspectives on the park as well as learning more about Colima in general. Now onto… focus groups! This was my big part in the project as I designed the format for how it would be carried out. I wanted the focus groups to be dynamic and creative in order to ensure interest and engagement from participants. The following will give an account of our original plan for the focus group and then an explanation of how the focus groups were actually carried out.

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Pre-Activity:

Who to Invite:

  • We had a lengthy debate over how we would divide groups by age for each focus group. We ended up going with:
    • Ages 6-14 + family (5 females, 5 males)
    • Ages 15-29 (5 females, 5 males)
    • Ages 30-50 (5 females, 5 males)
    • Ages 51+ (5 females, 5 males)
  • When deciding based on age groups, a good guideline to follow would be government designations for age. But it’s also important to consider that following these age guidelines may not only always be the best categorization for your participants. For example, we categorized youth between 15-29 but it is possible that people of this age may not identify as a “youth”. It is important to consider how these designations represent each group.
  • When considering participants, it always important to realize power dynamics (whether it be age, gender, class, etc.) within these discussions may impact who speaks and what they say.
  • For the children’s age group (6-14) we decided it was essential for these participants to be accompanied by a guardian because they were underage. We planned on having two groups, one for the children and one for adults so both could participate while still ensuring the age groups for our data. Although this helped in terms of liability, this approach could limit the participation of some children in this age group depending if their guardians availability and the interest of these guardians in participating.

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Where to invite:

  • We decided that having the focus group in the park and outdoors would allow participants to visually observe the space and would allow for more creativity in engaging them in their opinions by having them in the place of inquiry.

How to Invite:

  • We decided on inviting participants by distributing invitations in the park and the neighbourhood. We only wanted about 10 people per groups so we decided to distribute 25 invitations per focus group. We also gave 10 of these invitations to the local neighbourhood committee (they act as representatives of their neighbourhood in the municipality) to invite people they knew.

Focus Group Agenda:

Activity 1 – Mapping

  • Using a big map of the park, we asked participants to use 2 different coloured post-its to identify a) parts of the park they used and b) parts of the park they observe other people using. We thought this would be a good introduction to the focus group and have the participants visualize the park and think about how they use it and how they see others using it.
  • Then as a group, we would make a list of the activities for each space that was covered in many post-its, both what activities they liked to do and what they observed other people doing. Then we had them create a list of reasons why spaces without many post-its were not being used.

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    Mapping the park with post-its
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Doing a walk around the park to mark off observations.

Activity 2 – Walking Around the Park

  • Participants would be split into three groups (along with an assistant from IPCO) to do a walk around the park with a small map to mark off things that they valued in the park and things that were problems in the park.
  • Upon groups return have each group create a list of their findings.

Activity 3 – Future Ideas

  • To wrap up the focus group, each participant will receive a small outline of the map on paper and will be instructed to draw or write their dreams/wishes for new things they would like to see in the park. Each participant will have a chance to present their map and explain what they hope to see achieved in the park.

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    Discussing ideas for what the park could be someday.

What actually happened…

  • Our focus groups were being conducted in August. August in Mexico is rainy season. So of course it rained 2 out of 4 nights at exactly the time we planned on starting. Although there is a community centre there, it was quite difficult getting in touch with who was in charge of the space which also delayed any make up events.
  • Lesson learned: have a back up when your activity is outdoors.
  • Although we managed to distribute the invitations quite successfully amongst park users and neighbours the days preceding, nobody who participated in our focus groups actually came to the event who had received an invite. We ended up just asking people who were already in the park to join our activity which affected our numbers.
  • Lesson learned: Check how people have been invited to past activities (such as a getting out the megaphone as suggested in my title) and how these were successful or not. Also make sure your timing for these events is strategic. We found out later many children and youth were busy until 7pm or so every night because that’s when school was let out.

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    Talking with a neighbour who happened to be walking his dog through the park.
  • Depending on the people attending we had to change our activities and the agenda somewhat. Younger kids had a harder time sitting and doing our activities that involved lists. They were much more engaged when we let them colour their ideas on the map and when we were outside doing the walking activity (although being outside was also distracting because of other children playing nearby). For our focus groups where elderly or disabled people attended it was not possible to do the walking activity because of mobility limitations. So in that case, giving as visual map of the park worked as an alternative.
  • Lesson Learned: Be flexible! There are many different methods of finding data and you need to work with your group’s capabilities.
  • We planned a lot of these activities with the assistance of a municipal department. They aided in areas such as resources like chairs and tables as well as getting in touch with neighbourhood boards to promote our event. However, we did run into issues such as resources showing up late or not having enough. As well, we never heard from the neighbourhood boards regarding our event.
  • Lesson Learned: CONFIRMATION! AND REPEAT. Even if you seem like you’re bothering people it helps sometimes to give multiple reminders since sometimes things may be lost in translation or through the grapevine. As well, make sure you collect the contact information of every person you speak with so you know who to talk with if there are any issues. Furthermore, although a middle man does help in accessing certain groups, when possible it is best to get in contact with groups (such as neighbourhood communities) personally to ensure they receive correct information.

Despite these obstacles we have faced throughout the process, organizing and moderating these focus groups has been very rewarding. Engaging with people from the community allows our research to maintain some elements of participation and overall we hope that these initiatives can inspire other organizations, whether neighbours or different park users, to involve themselves in the process.

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The team from IPCO after a successful focus group!
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2 thoughts on “Focus Groups 101: Get out the megaphone

  1. Jane

    Great article, Hannah and congrats to you, Cody and the IPCO team for your persistence and willingness to be flexible when things don’t go according to plan. This is such a huge life lesson for all of us. So, I am curious to know what will happen with the results of your survey now. Is there capacity and interest within IPCO or the local municipality to address the issues raised around problems in the park?
    Jane

    1. Hi Jane! Thank you so much, it was definitely a learning experience for both of us. We just finished meeting with los comités de barrio concerning the park. At this point IPCO is only planning on finishing the study on the park and then deciding next steps afterwards. A large part will be dependent on the municipality’s ability to address some of the issues raised but I have a feeling this will not be answered until next year.

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