Focus groups

Focus groups involve conducting structured interviews with users brought together to discuss several specific topics in depth. The value of focus group research comes from the depth of the discussion, which is why a skilled moderator is an invaluable asset to a focus group study. We find that older adults, especially, enjoy the focus group format. In general, the rules for groups are to have a structured list of topics to cover (about five to seven, but seven can be difficult to cover in the typical two-hour span of a group). The people in each group should not know each other well because that may lead to sub-groups that do not differ in opinions. It is the job of the moderator to draw information from each group member; focus groups can be considered to be a number of interviews performed at once. Much more information can be garnered when people hear other responses to questions and discuss among themselves. The value of the focus group comes from the interaction during these "interviews." Another rule for focus groups is that each group should be homogeneous within a group with respect to the research questions. For example, on some topics it may be important to have all female or all male groups. For other topics, it may be important to have all older adults in one group and younger adults in another. The heterogeneity/diversity required for the focus group analysis is obtained across groups by having multiple groups. Again, a good resource for starting a focus group can be found in the book Designing for older adults, referenced at the end of this chapter.

Focus groups require a structure for the discussion. A common mistake for a new focus group moderator is to include too many questions about the interface or display that will be discussed by the group. When conducting multiple groups there must be a way to compare experiences across sessions, and this is allowed for by a good structure. Analysis of focus group data is systematic in terms of coding responses, thus a similar structure for all discussions will provide examples of focus member responses to a particular issue. It is often best to schedule focus groups in the morning or early afternoon, rather than later, for older participants. Generally, older persons report feeling "sharper" in the mornings and more energetic.

The structure and analysis of a focus group can be illustrated by a focus group study by one of the authors with older farmers concerning the displays on their equipment. The goal of the groups was to uncover knowledge from experienced farmers regarding dangers and safety issues on their farms. The structure developed for the groups was to specifically ask about equipment displays, tasks, time of year for those tasks, and the farmers' estimates of the most dangerous events and what made them dangerous. The moderator was looking for mentions of events that violated expectations (such as a display on a piece of machinery that provided misleading information) and various other issues, such as lack of training in reading certain displays or ignoring important display elements. As expected from a focus group, these data were gathered along with unexpected insights. For example, older farmers were aware of their declines in movement speed and adjusted their tasks accordingly, but also mentioned that completing tasks was paramount and would work into the night to finish them. In this case, the normal displays on their equipment were not visible and were ignored. These insights would not have been likely to show up in written surveys or even through observation during daily tasks.

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