The restrictive measures imposed by the COVID-19 emergency, which exploded while the Monitoring & Evaluation and Impact Assessment Unit was engaged in data collection for some projects in Italy and abroad, made it necessary to re-consider evaluation strategies to respond to changing needs of field. Determined not to give up the participatory approach – which enhances many of our assessment strategies – we experimented with the Virtual Focus Group Discussion (VFGD) tool, conducted through video conference platforms.
Recreating digitally the right atmosphere to foster a dynamic discussion and the active participation of all participants has proved to be a complex and interesting challenge, which has allowed researchers to see the many potentials of this innovative tool.
After a few attempts with different software, we chose to use the ZOOM platform, which has three important features: wide diffusion, intuitive interface, additional functions that facilitate involvement and interactivity. However, there are many alternatives, which can better adapt to other methodologies.
But good software is not enough! Experience has taught us that there are some aspects, methodological and logistical, that absolutely need to be taken into consideration to ensure the success of the VFGD. Starting, in particular, from the preparatory phase.
We share our lessons learned, hoping that they will facilitate in conducting virtual focus group discussions.
The preparation phase of the Virtual Focus Group Discussion is fundamental for its success, because it allows you to:
• decide the method to select participants,
• define the objectives of the VFGD,
• plan the different stages of the videoconference,
• prepare the tools for facilitating and animating the dialogue, and preventing small technical problems that could hinder its development.
It is better to limit the number of participants, inviting a maximum of 8 people, in order to allow everyone the time necessary to express themselves and avoid waiting times that are too long to be able to intervene.
In fact, it should be considered that the attention span is much more limited online, because participants can be distracted by what is happening around them, over which the moderator has no control. For this, the duration of a VFGD should be limited to 90 minutes.
When choosing the video conferencing platform to use, it is important to make sure that it allows you to view all the faces of the participants, so that you can maintain constant eye contact and not completely lose the information revealed by the body language. In addition, the platform must provide for the possibility of sharing the moderator’s screen, in order to allow the use of presentations or other visual aids useful for facilitating.
It was essential for us to share a presentation during the whole duration of the focus group. At all times, the information reported on the presentation clarified the topic of discussion to the participants and reminded them of the logical thread followed, helping to maintain concentration and avoid excessive digressions.
In addition, the presentation can also be used as a blackboard where you can record comments in real time or complete diagrams and tables, but also as a bulletin board where you can attach everyone’s contributions in the form of post-its.