Monday April 27th, 2020 ARCO

Virtual Focus Group Discussion: participatory methods at times of Coronavirus

virtual focus group discussion VFGD corona virus covi19 metodi partecipativi valutazione impatto impact evaluation participatory methods

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.

1. Preparation

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.

virtual focus group discussion metodi partecipativi consulena ricerca formazione consultancy training research Santa Rita bilancio sociale arco arcolab
VFGD insieme alla Fondazione Santa Rita per il Bilancio Sociale

2. Invite participants

The invitation to a virtual focus group is likely to be taken less seriously than an appointment in person, and there is therefore a greater risk that participants decide at the last minute not to show up. Furthermore, technical problems or unexpected commitments of the participants (at home or in the office) can also lead to the sudden abandonment of the call before it ends.

Therefore, it is necessary on the one hand to prevent technical problems related to the use of online platforms, on the other to find some stratagem to make participants feel more “responsible”.

For this reason, in the days preceding the VFGD we advise to:

  • • Contacting all participants individually (telephone is preferred), in order to create a direct relationship with each one, carry out technical tests of the functioning of the platform, understand the degree of knowledge of the focus group tool, and “empower” to participate;

  • • Send a summary email of what has been said over the phone to all the participants, together with the link to the meeting, if necessary by adding further instructions (eg having a pen and paper available).

  • • If necessary, the day before the VFGD it may be useful to send a reminder message or email.

Furthermore, on the day of the Virtual Focus Group Discussion, we recommend:

  • • Connect to the “virtual room” about half an hour before the official start of the event, in order to allow participants to do some connection tests and solve any technical problems in advance. In this way you will avoid wasting time during the event, perhaps risking losing the attention and enthusiasm of the participants.

  • • Be sure to prepare the screen display so that everyone can see both the presentation slides (or other visual instrument) and the faces of all the participants at the same time. On Zoom, for example, this option is called “grid view”.

3. Moderating Virtual Focus Group Discussion

Managing an online participatory process can be quite complex, particularly because there is a greater risk of losing the attention of the participants. For this reason, our advice is to always provide for the presence of at least two facilitators:

  • • a moderator, who interacts more actively with the participants, guides the discussion, asks any further questions, moderates the answers, etc.

  • • an assistant, who takes notes, reports the participants’ contributions on the visual support used (in our case, it was virtual post-its, text, diagrams and matrices inserted in the support presentation), manages the shared information on the chat (send ideas, keep the thread of the topics covered, copy-paste the feedback of the participants), etc.

Furthermore, we believe that some precautions at the beginning of the discussion can favor the atmosphere of confrontation that must characterize each focus group. The risk, in fact, is that the virtual setting induces the participants to behave as if they were participating in a group interview, mistakenly considering the moderator as the main interlocutor.

For example, we found it useful:

• Clarify that the focus group is a methodology that provides for interaction and comparison between the participants themselves, and that the moderator will simply take care of facilitating dialogue and maintaining it on the topics of interest.

• Define some simple rules that allow an orderly and respectful dialogue;

• Propose a small “test” interaction at the beginning of the focus group, perhaps at the time of the presentations, to break the ice and put the participants at ease.

Finally, do not forget to ask for permission to record the call (audio and video) and possibly to use photos / screenshots of the VFGD for communication needs. Although many video conferencing platforms allow it, the moderator should avoid silencing all participants centrally if possible. As comfortable as it is, especially when the background noises get annoying, it is a gesture that risks ruining the sharing atmosphere a little. Ideally, at the beginning of the discussion, explain to the participants when and why it is appreciated to keep the microphone off when you do not want to speak.

And now?
You just have to try!

In depth analysis on Virtual Focus Group Discussion

♦ Daniels, N., Gillen, P., Casson, K., & Wilson, I. (2019). STEER: Factors to Consider When Designing Online Focus Groups Using Audiovisual Technology in Health Research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods

Deakin, H., & Wakefield, K. (2014). Skype interviewing: reflections of two PhD researchers. Qualitative Research, 14(5), 603–616. 

Hanna, P. (2012). Using internet technologies (such as Skype) as a research medium: a research note. Qualitative Research, 12(2), 239–242.

Lijadi, A. A., & van Schalkwyk, G. J. (2015). Online Facebook Focus Group Research of Hard-to-Reach Participants. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. 

♦ Rupert, D. J., Poehlman, J. A., Hayes, J. J., Ray, S. E., & Moultrie, R. R. (2017). Virtual Versus In-Person Focus Groups: Comparison of Costs, Recruitment, and Participant Logistics. Journal of medical Internet research, 19(3), e80. 

♦ Turney, Lyn & Pocknee, Catherine. (2008). Virtual Focus Groups: New Frontiers in Research. The International Journal of Qualitative Methods 4(2) · January 2008. 

♦ Tuttas, C. A. (2015). Lessons Learned Using Web Conference Technology for Online Focus Group Interviews. Qualitative Health Research, 25(1), 122–133.