Focus Groups: Face to Face

[Description] [Pros] [Cons] [Common Uses] [Resources]


This tool is a qualitative method of data collection wherein a skilled moderator facilitates discussion on a selected topic among 6 to 10 respondents, allowing them to respond spontaneously to the issues raised. Focus groups held in person usually last for 90 to 120 minutes per session. For focus group research to be most valuable, the moderator must go over the research topics, establish an environment in which all points of view are welcome, and follow up on unexpected but potentially valuable topics that are raised.

When focus groups are conducted in person, participants and the moderator gather, usually around a table. Observers (members of the strategy team) sit behind a one-way mirror or unobtrusively back from the table and take notes. Groups may also be recorded by audio or videotape.

Focus groups create an atmosphere for synergistic discussion among members of the target audience. Researchers commonly use them to develop market or communication strategy, explore reactions to message concepts (concept testing), develop hypotheses (broad study issues) for quantitative studies, and identify the range of responses that should be included in closed-ended questionnaires, provide insights into the results of quantitative studies, and brainstorm for possible program improvements.

Focus groups can help develop your market strategy by:

  • Learning about feelings, motivators, and past experiences related to the health issue
  • Exploring the feasibility of various potential behaviors from the audienceís viewpoint
  • Identifying barriers to those behaviors
  • Exploring what benefits the audience finds most compelling and believes can result from engaging in a particular behavior
  • Learning about the audienceís use of settings, channels, and activities for information, entertainment, and support
  • Capturing the language the audience uses to discuss a health issue
  • Identifying cultural differences that may affect strategy or intervention selection
  • Providing insights into the results of quantitative studies by obtaining in-depth information from audience members to help understand why individuals respond in certain ways.

Focus groups can help explore reactions to concepts or ideas by:

  • Identifying concepts that do or donít resonate and learning why
  • Triggering strategy teamís creative thinking
  • Showing the strategy team what audience members think and how they talk about a health issue.


  • Interaction in the group can help elicit in-depth thought and discussion
  • Group interaction can help with brainstorming, because participants can build on each othersí ideas
  • Considerable opportunity to probe answers
  • Can yield richer data than surveys about the complexities of thoughts and behavior
  • Groups can provide feedback from a number of individuals in a relatively short amount of time
  • In-person groups give moderator more opportunity to read nonverbal cues and use nonverbal cues to control the flow of discussion than in telephone focus groups.
  • Rapport can be fostered more easily among in-person groups than telephone groups


  • Findings not generalizable to the whole target audience
  • Respondents may be concerned about lack of anonymity
  • Can be labor intensive and expensive, especially if groups are conducted in multiple locations
  • Group responses donít necessarily reflect individualsí opinions because some participants may dominate the discussion or influence othersí opinions
  • Cannot get everyoneís opinion on every question; each person is limited to about 10 to 15 minutes of talk time
  • An inexperienced moderator can lead the group in one direction or neglect to probe for critical insights.

Common Uses

  • Explore complex topics with target audience prior to program (e.g., what helps/hinders healthy eating)
  • Learn about feelings, motivators, past experiences related to a health topic
  • Test concepts, messages, materials, and artwork
  • Can generate and test hypothesis


For guidance on how to plan focus groups, see Steps for Conducting Focus Groups and In-depth Interviews.

See a focus group handbook developed by CDCís Division of Diabetes Translation that provides information on conducting focus groups with hard-to-reach populations. Diabetes Handbook.pdf

See a screening tool for recruiting participants: IM_Vaccine_Safety_Focus_Groups Qualifying_Questions.pdf

See a consent form used for participation in focus groups: IM_consentform.pdf

See a moderator's guide for exploratory focus groups on mammography Mammography_mod_guide.pdf.