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How to use this manual
What is formative research?
What do you want to know?
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Focus groups

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Focus groups are in-depth guided discussions among several individuals led by a trained moderator. Participants can be clients, prospective clients (your target audience), influencers of your clients (parents, teachers, opinion leaders) or the general public. Focus groups are used to answer a specific question, or to explore a particular problem. They can also be used as a beginning step, to gather information about a population with whom an agency may have little experience. Focus groups are also conducted among people who work with an agency’s clients and not only the clients themselves.

How are they used?
Focus groups are a good way to find out about perceived norms of a certain group. They can give detailed information about people’s experiences and perceptions. Focus groups can also be useful when exploring certain topics because participants get support from others in the group. For example, a focus group of female IDUs might be a safe place for women to discuss violence or housing concerns.

Focus groups, however, can sometimes deter discussion of sensitive topics and not allow for “outlier” concerns to be raised. Also, don’t assume that focus group participants all need to be of similar gender, race or orientation, as this can sometimes inhibit discussion. For example, a focus group on condom use among gay male teens in a smaller community may not encourage total openness because everyone in the room may be a past or future boyfriend. This would not be the best atmosphere for admitting HIV status or condom habits.

Focus groups often:
•    Reimburse participants. Offer incentives such as money, food, or vouchers (for food, clothes, medical care).
•    Are tape recorded. Someone may take notes as well.
•    Are facilitated by a trained moderator.
•    Last one to two hours.
•    Over-invite people. Depending on the situation, many people will not show up.
•    Take place in a private environment. Ideally, focus groups should take place indoors in a private room.
•    Take place in specially equipped rooms so that unseen staff members may observe.

Sometimes, a special meeting of agency staff or outreach workers can be considered a focus group. Staff meetings can be used to discuss problems or concerns noted in the field or with a particular intervention, or to generate ideas for new interventions. Combining staff from several agencies is also a good way to get a cross-section of opinions from people working in the field. In these cases, one agency member should be assigned to take notes, and the meeting should begin with a general list of questions, although diversions should be noted.

Case Study
  The Department of Community Health in Fresno schedules a bi-monthly luncheon for all agencies doing HIV prevention work as well as the local Planned Parenthood. It started when a street outreach worker wanted to learn more about drug treatment, so he went out with the treatment outreach worker. “There’s a park in Fresno where you can find youth, sex industry workers, gay/bi men, injection drug users, homeless and transient. So we found ourselves bumping into each other in this park, and we started to think, why don’t we just start working together?” That led to the luncheons where staff from all agencies talk about what they’ve noticed, how the programs are going, and how they can better interact. According to Eric, “with a lot of the services that we focus on now, the direction comes from the staff.”

Healthf.jpg (9784 bytes) Health fair with peer educators, Fresno County Department of Community Health



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Good Questions, Better Answers --  1998 California Department of Health Services and Northern California Grantmakers AIDS Task Force  --