covid-19, featured, Notebook

Conducting focus groups in a global pandemic

by Cordula Hinkes

The COVID-19 pandemic poses new challenges for researchers in the social sciences. Several research methods require communication and interaction between the researcher and respondents. Some of my colleagues were planning to conduct focus groups with consumers in multiple countries earlier this year. Due to travel restrictions and social distancing requirements, they had to put their plans on hold. Waiting for the restrictions to be lifted, they re-organized their research plans to focus on other tasks they could complete in the meantime. But as the development of the pandemic remains uncertain, they now must think about alternatives to conduct face-to-face focus groups in order to proceed with their project.

Online focus groups provide a way out of this situation. Many researchers might be hesitant to use qualitative online methods that are not well-established yet. As part of my current research, I conducted both face-to-face and synchronous text-based online focus groups, implemented in the form of web chats. This approach helped me to explore relevant methodological advantages and disadvantages. Based on this experience, I identified key aspects to consider during the preparation and implementation of synchronous text-based online focus groups. These include the size and composition of the groups, the discussion process, the moderator’s lack of control, and technical issues.

With respect to group composition, an obvious benefit of online focus groups is that people from different locations can be brought together. In my study, the focus groups were composed of participants from all over Germany, which would have been doable in a face-to-face setting. The online setting instead allows for the participation of target groups that are otherwise difficult to reach, such as physically disabled persons or people living in rural areas. Further advantages result from this mostly anonymous environment including that participants felt more comfortable discussing sensitive topics, and potential power imbalances became less influential.

On the downside, it is difficult for the moderator to manage the discussion due to the synchronous nature of the discussion process. The lack of visual and vocal cues aggravates this problem and makes it hard to capture feelings or moods. I experienced that participants who type rather slowly found it difficult to keep up with the pace of the discussion. Some were still formulating answers to a question, while the discussion had already moved on. Another major issue is information threading, meaning that the group discussion splits into parallel conversations on different topics.

The moderator’s lack of control also extends to the discussion environment. After one session, I noticed that one respondent had copied and pasted a statement from a website as a response to one of my questions. This was something that previous research accounts of focus groups had not prepare me for and could lead to serious problems for the validity of this method. In my article published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology, I elaborate on these aspects in more detail and provide recommendations on the selection of suitable chat software to reduce the risk of technical issues and disturbances. It is important to keep differences between online and face-to-face focus groups in mind; but with good preparation, some disadvantages of remote discussions can be overcome. Synchronous text-based online focus groups are a method worth exploring – not only in times like these.

Read full IJSRM article here.

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