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FAQ 3: When is it best to use focus group, in-depth interviews or observations?

What's the issue?

We have taken a decision that we will conduct a qualitative data collection, but which method do we want to choose? Do we want to observe a particular group or site for a long period in order to discover how meanings, representations, and behaviour come about? Or a group discussing where participants share and compare their experience would be better? Perhaps we are dealing with specific and sensitive issues and we would rather conduct in-depth interviews?

Common practice

  • Focus groups can be used to examine children's preferences in the context of their peer-related activities, thus uncovering meanings and feelings, specific topics that children of the same age talk about and, more specifically, how they communicate about their media and internet interests and experiences. Often, media use and content is selected, assigned significance and interpreted through social interaction within groups. The dynamics of children's peer groups can be at least partly captured and reproduced within focus groups.
  • Since focus groups are based on social interaction, the context within which that interaction takes place is of the utmost importance. Focus groups can be conducted in informal peer group settings, and in classroom situations, as well as at home. The location of the research matters to children (and, no doubt, to adults), and should be familiar to the child. In this particular sense, focus groups are more similar to "natural groups" (that is, pre-existing social groups - such as friends, class mates, families, etc.) than to "artificial groups" (usually assembled by marketing researchers) include people who don't know each other necessarily (and actually are not supposed to).
  • In-depth interviews can be used as part of a mixed method research strategy (e.g. as complementary method to a survey); the same may be assumed about focus groups. Each one, however, can be used as a research method in its own right. Either way, interviews and focus groups must follow certain basic rules. In fact, researchers have developed a range of techniques and several strategies for working with groups of children and young people.
  • These include using visual retrieval aids for recall, asking 'wh' questions (who/what/when/where/why) rather than yes/no questions, and open-ended rather than closed questions, and explaining that 'I don't know' is an acceptable reply (to reduce response biases). See Lobe et al (2007).
  • In a focus group design social interaction between participants is the core issue. The researcher is asked to encourage and observe discussions between individuals. Being able to collect the information you need while observing interaction among participants is an obvious benefit of conducting a focus group.
  • As general rule, in-depth interviews are best when you are interested in individual information, regarding several topics of interest that can be attained only through an informal conversation alone with the child informant. On the other hand, focus groups are best when you want to consider not only children's own accounts of reality but the way they negotiate these accounts with others, therefore showing divergence or convergence between their views.
  • Observation may be a part of other methods (e.g. occurring during focus groups) or be employed as an independent or alternative method. Participant observation of children's playing falls into this last category. It may also be part of an experimental design, based on systematic observation. When researching very young children, this last procedure may prove to be particularly adequate, since other methods could be rejected by children or simply be inappropriate for certain ages.

Questions to consider

Any research interaction with children should allow sufficient time for 'warming-up' and developing a rapport with the children. Besides that it is important to arrange for more than one meeting in order to gain the trust of the child informant.
Furthermore, the research process should be varied as children's concentration span calls for variety in approaches (mixing methods, shifting focus, introducing varied materials).

Often, media use and content is selected, assigned significance and interpreted through social interaction within groups. The dynamics of children's peer groups can be at least partly captured and reproduced within focus groups.
Several basic strategies have been noticed by authors who have worked with children in focus groups (Morgan, Gibbs, Maxwell, & Britten, 2002): care in the recruitment and composition of the group (4-5 children is probably best, as is separating boys and girls for older children); achieving a balance of power that enables spontaneous contributions; setting the scene to encourage informality and participation, specifying ground rules, structured warm-up activities; managing space and time by breaking up the session, varying the activities, arranging the space; accessing children's meanings through appropriate prompts and probing; use of an alternative personality (e.g. a stuffed toy or cartoon character to take the place of the interviewer); pen and paper exercises, especially for drawing or for producing a shared image; role-playing scenarios with dolls, toys or the children themselves; observing the group dynamics, tensions and sensitive moments (Irwin & Johnson, 2005; Lewis, 1992).

Pitfalls to avoid

As regards the role assigned to children in an interview, it is important to treat them as active participants, rather than mere respondents, giving them the opportunity to explain their responses in the interviewing process. Children must not get the feeling that they have to give the "right" answers.

Interviews, individual or collective, are the result of a given social process, which means they are not simply "neutral" conversations between two or more individuals. In this sense, all information is the result of a particular social relation between interviewer and interviewee. The context in which the interview takes place, the roles that are assigned to participants, the individual characteristics of participants (both interviewer and interviewee) - all these influence the kind of relation established and nature of the information gathered.

Although focus groups add to in-depth interviews the possibility of observing group dynamics, they could be restrictive if we intend to explore certain topics related to single individuals. This is particularly the case when one is dealing with children or young people.

Be aware of the number of participants of focus groups. Having more participants will not make the data more generalisable.

Further resources

Morgan, D. & Krueger, R.A (Eds.), (1998). The Focus Group Kit. London: Sage.
Greene, S., & Hogan, D. (2005). Researching children's experiences: methods and approaches. London: Sage.
Hennessy, E., & Heary, C. (2005). Exploring Children's Views Through Focus Groups In S. Greene & D. Hogan (Eds.), Researching children's experience (pp. 236-252). London: Sage.

A researcher's experience: in-depth interviews and focus groups from a research project on children and the internet

Focus groups or in-depth interviews seem to me the most appropriate methods for investigations with children, despite the advantages and disadvantages of each method. If the first allows us to understand how they relate to each other, it also shows who dominates the group. I can testify that, in some focus groups, there was always someone who enjoyed being the leader, answering all the questions, even the ones which hadn't been addressed to her/him. This situation can be particularly embarrassing if the rest of the group is too shy, since it can be really difficult to understand the opinions of the rest of the group. Focus groups can also be an obstacle to talking about private subjects, such as sex or any other sensitive themes. It is a fact that in-depth interviews could be a solution for this case; however, one should remember that this kind of interview is much more intimate and the researcher has to prepare her/himself much better, so that the approach can be accepted well by the children. According to my experience, I would say that in-depth interviews work better with teenagers and adults, while for younger children they can be quite embarrassing.
(Cátia Candeias, Portugal)

A researcher's experience: observation of focus groups from a study on children's reading of animation

As regards observation, I noticed that the children taking part in the group discussions were easily distracted by my activities, and even stopped talking when I stood up. This was possibly due to the classroom context where the children are usually requested to follow the teacher's instructions and to behave accordingly - i.e. not to speak unless asked to. (Sofia Leitão, Portugal)

A researcher's experience: focus group on IPTV and broadband internet among teenagers and young adults

Natural groups are one of the most appropriate methods to investigate children and their media uses. One of their main advantages is the opportunity for the researcher to observe social interaction in its natural setting and, as far as children's use of online technologies are concerned, observe how practices of use are defined, negotiated and shaped within social networks and peer relations. In contrast, focus groups organized through recruitment agencies can introduce a significant bias, since many recruitment agencies now make use of "professional focus groupers", that is people (even teenagers and younger children) who are used to joining several focus groups per year, and who also sometimes specialize in talking about certain topics (such as media consumption). So what is supposed to be a group of people who have never attended a focus group at least in the last 6 months and who have never met before, turns out to be a group of acquaintances who share this "second job". In a specific research project conducted by EU Kids Online members, both the researcher and the recorder clearly recognized one of the interviewee as being a girl who was interviewed a few months before. On each occasion the girl claimed to have different broadband providers (the main competitors on the Italian market) and when the researcher asked for further information she seemed to be confused). (Giovanna Mascheroni, Italy).

Example of bad practice: Natural groups on mobile phone uses and internet practices

The main disadvantage of natural groups comes from the fact that the group observed is characterized by established relationships, certain roles and relations of power within the group that the researcher has to identify and bear in mind. Another side effect of the study of pre-existing social networks is the fact that they tend to share a common experience expressed in terms that are largely taken for granted and unfamiliar to the researcher. This aspect, though, may be peculiar with all focus groups on children, since they tend to speak their "own" language and perceive the researcher (independently of her age, in/formal look, etc) as a stranger, too odd to understand what they are speaking about. This was the case of one research project where the group was comprised of two boys and two girls all aged 14 and 15, two of whom had been boy- and girlfriend. The two kept on flirting during the interview, much to the great disappointment of the other girl who was seemingly jealous of her friend. The interview was somewhat hard to manage, especially when the group was asked to tell and show what kind of texts and MMS they used to exchange, since most of this was related to the previous "affair" between. (Giovanna Mascheroni, Italy).

 

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