Module 8: helping young people identify their needs: facilitator's guide

9.4 Conducting focus groups

Page last updated: 2004

Focus groups usually have 8-10 participants, and use a number of structured questions to help focus the group's discussion. Through the group's exchange of ideas, participants can explore issues of concern to them, and identify strategies for action. Focus groups can also be an effective way of involving young people and others in any subsequent interventions.

Effective focus groups

Effective focus groups

To be effective, focus groups need to:
  • have clear aims about what is to be achieved
  • involve the most appropriate and representative participants
  • be conducted in partnership with relevant agencies
  • be carefully planned, organised and run
  • use skilled focus group facilitators
  • result in action.

Aims and purpose

If you are thinking that focus groups may be a useful strategy in your work, it's always a good idea to think first about your aims, or the primary purpose in running a focus group.
  • Is it to explore a hunch you and other have about an issue for young people?
  • Is it to involve young people and others in a working group to run a project?
Only when clear aims are established do you have a clear idea about who the participants and facilitators should be, what other agencies should be involved and how the results can be used.

Question - If you are thinking of using focus groups for a particular issue at work, what are your aims and what are you hoping to achieve?Top of page

Participants and partnerships

It is important to involve the right people to help achieve the aims of your focus group.
  • Focus group participants - You need to invite people who are representative of the particular groups you want to access. For instance, you may want to invite representatives from a range of different services that work with young people (e.g. the police, schools, youth services etc). Your aims might be to explore the issues they have identified for young people through their work, and then identify any gaps in services provision and ideas for action.

    However, you may also want to explore young people's ideas about this as well. Through your discussions with other agencies you may decide that it's best to run separate focus groups for young people, and then exchange these ideas between the different groups, before running larger, combined focus groups. You may also realise that the young people in your work area are not a homogenous group. For example, the young people who use the youth centre may be a sub-group that is very different to the general population of young people at the local school. You may therefore need to run a few different focus groups to capture that diversity.

    Offering young people something to attend a focus group (e.g. money, lunch etc.) is important to get them there and reward them for their contribution. Paying young people adds to the group's sense of professionalism.

  • Partnerships with other agencies - You will also need to involve other relevant people and agencies to help you plan and run the focus groups. They will be people who have relationships with the focus groups' participants you'll want to invite. They will also have good ideas and skills to help you in other aspects of planning, promoting and running the groups. In addition they should be able to help you act on the results (e.g. people with access to funds or influence within local agencies or government departments). It's probably a good idea to set up a small working group including these people right from the start. Be sure to try and include a few young people as well!
Question - Recall the aims of your focus groups. Who could you involve to help plan and run them?

Question - Who could be invited to attend the focus groups? Should there be more than one focus group to accommodate the different participants?

Facilitating a focus group

If you have never run a focus group before, it's a good idea to work with someone who has. Each focus group session is usually run by two facilitators who:
  • are skilled in facilitating group discussions
  • have credibility with the group participants, and
  • can quickly establish an environment which is open, trusting and non-judgemental.
The facilitators can take turns in guiding discussions and taking notes. (With the group's permission you may wish to record the session).

Facilitators will need to be able to guide the discussion through the pre-planned questions, yet also allow the group sufficient scope to explore other important issues that arise (all within the allotted time frame!).

To encourage an open atmosphere and encourage equal contributions from all participants, facilitators should:
  • establish group agreements (e.g. everyone has the right to contribute and say what they think; equal 'air space' or contributions from all; there are no right or wrong answers or opinions; confidentiality for the individual)
  • avoid expressing an opinion about what participants say (either verbally or non-verbally),
  • convey genuine interest in the group and people's contributions and help them explore their ideas with each other.

Task - brainstorm/writing exercise, group activity

Question - What skills do you think you already have, and what skills they may need to develop to become an effective facilitator of focus groups? What role could they most comfortably play in a focus group now?Top of page

Planning and running the session

Task - brainstorm/writing exercise, group activity

  • The venue - Choose a location that is nonthreatening, comfortable and easily accessed (e.g. take into account public transport, disabled access and child care if necessary).

  • Setting up - Useful materials include name tags, white board or butchers' paper and textas, blue tac, tape recorder (if agreed to by group), consent forms (if you wish to use the information publicly) and refreshments.

  • The session - Each session usually runs for about two hours. The meeting commences with an outline of the aims of the focus group, establishing the group agreements, and conducting an exercise to introduce the participants to each other. The group discussion is usually based around a set of pre-planned questions. Some of the questions suggested in the 'Community Partnerships Kit' include:

    • What are the good things about this community?
    • What are some of the problems in this community?
    • How do these problems affect you as an individual?
    • How do these problems affect the community?
    • What do you think we/you can do to tackle these problems?
    • Can you give some examples of responses you know have been successful?
    • Can you give some examples of responses that have not worked?
    • What are the likely barriers to tackling the problem?
    • Do you have any suggestions for overcoming these?
    • What additional services or programs would help people address the problems?
    • Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
Alternatively you could use some of the questions together with the mind-mapping strategy discussed earlier. You could construct a series of questions that asks the group to:
  • identify any shared issues or problems
  • brainstorm the range of factors that may contribute to or cause these problems (using the systems diagram as a framework)
  • brainstorm possible solutions.
Question - If you intended to run a focus group, what are some of the questions you could ask that group? How could you use the mindmapping strategy to help facilitate the group discussion?

Question - If you wanted to make this focus group a reality, what would be the first step you would need to take?

Optional exercise – presentation

Ask learners to present their responses to the previous two questions on the group. This can be done as an individual presentation or group presentation. The discussion should be no longer than 20 minutes in length.

Learners can use OHTs, collages, diagrams, role plays, case studies, handouts or other forms of media to support their presentation.
Top of page


In this topic we have:
  • identified a possible issue experienced by young people where you work

  • explored some dilemmas in identifying issues or 'problems' for young people and the importance of incorporating young people's perspectives from the beginning of the needs assessment process

  • mind-mapped the ways in which community issues can contribute to the problems experienced by young people

  • identified ways to find out more information about the community you work in and the issues young people may face.

Overhead transparency

Key points to note

  • Individual, family, peer, community and societal factors may all impact on a young person's AOD use

  • Mind-mapping – a problem solving technique assists workers to explore the possible impact of community factors on young peoples AOD use

  • Focus groups can be an effective way of involving your target group and other key people in exploring issues and identifying strategies for action.