Research on Coronavirus: Ten best practices for a focus group moderator

People meeting

Best focus group discussions are those where participants discuss the research questions without noticing a moderator’s intervention.

We are not oblivious to challenges and changes. We have seen diseases – smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, and malaria, to name a few – and have managed to come out stronger. There is an old adage “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I believe that the statement has never been truer.

Over the decades we have balanced our survival and thrived. This could only be made possible with constant research that added to our knowledge. Whatever we know today is from past research and whatever we will know in the future will be based on research we do until that point. And, the pattern will continue for generations to come.

In the backdrop of coronavirus, I would assume that for the next few years researchers will be focusing on building knowledge on the virus and the diseases it causes, COVID. This will require both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Among qualitative research techniques of data collection, focus group discussions are frequently used to elicit quality information through discussions on a topic. These interviews not only help to get information but also ensure that the information is collected in the right context and from strategically selected participants.

Focus group interview

A focus group interview is an effective data collection tool where participants share their thoughts as they discuss a topic in a group setting. In their book Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences, authors Howard Lune and Bruce L. Berg explain a focus group interview in the following terms:

“The focus group is an interview style designed for small groups of unrelated individuals, formed by an investigator and led in a group discussion on some particular topic or topics (Barbour, 2008).”

The success of this data collection tool, however, depends on one key element: interaction between participants. Best focus group discussions are those where participants discuss the research questions without requiring intervention even from a moderator. Ironically, best moderators are those who facilitate the discussion without being noticed.

A skilled and experienced moderator, therefore, is a prerequisite for a successful focus group discussion. In the journal article titled “Analyzing group interaction in focus group research: Impact on content and the role of the moderator,” the authors sum it well, “Successful group interactions between focus group members rely to a large extent on a moderator.”

Today, I put together ten best practices for a focus group moderator.

Make rapport through trust

A good opening is sacrosanct for a successful interaction. It is a good practice for a moderator to introduce themselves, welcome the participants, and set the ground rules in the beginning. At this time, a moderator may also request participants to sign a statement of confidentiality. This statement, however, is more of an honor than legal. “Enforcement of this agreement, as with all confidentiality agreements in research, largely is one of honor rather than law,” explains Lune and Berg in their book on qualitative research. Nonetheless, the agreement does convey to participants that confidentiality is important. A moderator may then open the discussion with an exploratory question, followed by introductory questions, and then gradually lead the group to the focus topic to present key questions of discussion.

Ensure the participation of all group members

The purpose of a group discussion fails if some members are not participating in the discussion. “It is, after all, the reason researchers carefully screen and recruit group participants, i.e., to hear about experiences and attitudes that will vary from individual to individual,” according to the research article “Individual thinking in the focus group method.” The physical set up of the discussion also plays a significant role in ensuring participation from all members. Research journal AORN’s article “Methods to conduct focus groups and the moderator’s role” explains: “There should be one chair for each participant, and the chairs should be placed around a table in an oval or round configuration. All participants should be able to establish eye contact with each other and the moderator.” Such an arrangement will assist in observing nonverbal cues too.

Identify “group think” and encourage a variety of thoughts

Sometimes group participants get too comfortable with a single thought. This may occur due to an implicit consensus among group members or due to sub-group pressure. Such an instance, however, jeopardizes the whole purpose of a focus group interview. The impact of “group think” is difficult to rule out even if the interview requires participants to fill a questionnaire separately, toward the end. In this situation, a moderator’s skill to encourage a variety of thoughts is necessary. “The tension that heterogeneity may create in a group discussion can serve to uncover deeper insights into what is being studied, providing the moderator is able to channel this tension in constructive directions,” according to an article in Research Design Review.

Take up different roles depending on a discussion’s requirement

A moderator may end up taking different roles, for instance, of an introducer, a go-to person, a listener, an investigator, or a catalyst, during a discussion. Of course, all these roles are performed within the parameters of being a researcher. Sometimes a research topic may dictate a role. This can be explained well with the help of a situational example from the public health sector, which is cited in the above-mentioned article. It says that while discussing the extent of public health knowledge of alcohol, a moderator will gather more information by encouraging them to elaborate on their answers. In comparison, if the moderator takes the role of a health professional, they may interrupt the flow of interaction.

Appear neutral and nonjudgmental at all times

As easy as this may sound, a neutral and nonjudgmental appearance demands practice and experience. Achieving neutrality, and maintaining the flow of interaction, becomes all the more difficult while discussing sensitive topics. Neutrality should be achieved in a manner that it does not infer insensitivity or lack of interest on the part of a moderator. “This may be especially difficult when the topics or responses are emotional or contain disturbing content. When a participant becomes upset or distraught, the moderator certainly can acknowledge the participant’s distress,” according to the article published in AORN Journal.

Attentively listen and request for explanation wherever necessary

A moderator can request further details or avoid interrupting a good response only if they are actively listening. “It is important to have a schedule or agenda during the focus group; however, it should never be so inflexible that interesting topics that spontaneously arise during the group discussion are short changed or unnecessarily truncated,” according to Lune and Berg. The request for more information, however, should not be in a “Why” question. For instance, instead of asking “Why did you say that?”, a moderator may phrase the question as, “Could you explain this more?”.

Ability to apply projective techniques

Projective techniques refer to methods where a moderator inquires about the topics through indirect questions. These techniques include activities like sentence completion, collage, third-person narratives, drawing a picture, personification, word association, and brand mapping. These activities are explained in detail in research articles published in SAGE and Emerald. Projective techniques can help to gain in-depth understanding and reasons behind thoughts and decisions.

Sensitive to group members

A focus group may have participants from different cultural, financial, and educational backgrounds. These diverse backgrounds not only have an impact on how participants respond but also how they look. “Wearing expensive and elegant clothes or too much makeup, jewelry, or perfume can contribute to some participants feeling “out classed” or that their opinions are not valued,” says the article in AORN Journal. A moderator should be conscious of these nuances and be respectful to all the participants.

Practice silent conversation

Silent conversation refers to applying silence or pauses as a technique to elicit a response. This technique, as in one-on-one interviews, is a good practice in a focus group discussion. This tool, however, may be used by both moderators and participants. Participants may use it as “silent resistance to an interview’s anticipation of what suitable answering entails”, “a protest against the interview setup”, or a way to avoid answering, according to the research article “Analysing the significance of silence in qualitative interviewing: questioning and shifting power relations.” Moderators, on the other hand, use it to encourage more responses from interviewees. The use of silence enables the shift of power between a moderator and participants. “Rather than creating ‘significant data gaps’, silence is linked to power by producing an important and dynamic component in qualitative interviewing. Instead of always trying to avoid silence, sometimes we ought to embrace it,” elaborates the article on qualitative research interview.

Thank participants and convey plans for follow-ups

Toward the end of a focus group discussion, it is always helpful to ask a final question that fills the gap, if any. This question can be, “Is there anything that we have not asked that you would like to tell us?” says a research article in Applied Nursing Research. After the end of a discussion, the moderator should thank the participants for their time and participation. If there are any plans for follow-ups, this is the time to convey that to the participants.

The moderator plays an important role in a focus group interview to ensure a rich collection of relevant data. A lot of planning, preparation, practice, and experience go into making a successful moderator. All these efforts bear fruit in the form of a seamless interaction where every participant expresses their thoughts without much intervention.

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