Getting Your Data: Focus Groups

Activity: 3.4 Preparing for a Focus Group

Purpose of Activity:

This activity is designed to educate participants about the basics of focus groups, focus group guides, and how to devise effective focus group questions.

By the End of Activity Participants Will:

  • Learn the basics of setting up and conducting focus groups
  • Develop questions for a focus group guide


Before this Activity Participants Will Need to:

Have determined your research goals and research questions

Have decided on your research method

Materials Needed:

Butcher Paper


Butcher Paper with list of Research Goals and Research Questions

Key Terms

Focus Group

Focus Group Guide


Qualitative Data


Time Needed:

1 Hour

Part I: Background on Focus Groups (30 minutes)

What is a Focus Group?

Facilitator Instructions:

1. Go around the room and ask people what they know about focus groups. Write answers on butcher paper.

2. Compare what people came up with, with the definition below. Make sure each piece of the definition is covered.

Focus Group Definition

A focus group is a guided discussion, led by a well-prepared facilitator where the participants will answer a set of questions. Focus groups are generally recorded and the answers that the participants provide are used as qualitative data in a final report. Qualitative data are stories or in depth ideas about a topic, rather than numbers and statistics.

3. Next have participants brainstorm goals for focus groups and record their responses on butcher paper, add any of the goals below that were missed.

Focus Group Goals

  • To collect in depth ideas and explanations from a specific group of people;
  • To have participants answer a specific set of questions to gather qualitative data;
  • To collect clear recordings or notes of the focus groups that can be transcribed and then analyzed;
  • To deepen the engagement of focus group participants in the research process and the organization’s campaigns.

4. Split participants into small groups of 3-4.

5. Ask each small group to think of benefits and challenges of using focus groups to gather data. Make sure each group records their list on butcher paper and is prepared to share it with the rest of the group.

6. Have each small group share their list benefits and challenges with the big group.

7. Compare the list of benefits and challenges with those listed in the Tool 3.7 Benefits and Challenges of Using Focus Groups for additional ideas.

Part II. Developing Focus Group Questions (30 minutes)

Facilitator Instructions:

1. Introduce the activity: the purpose of this activity is to provide information about how to develop good questions for a focus group guide. Let the participants know that by the end of the activity they will have brainstormed questions for your Focus Group Guide.

2. Describe what a Focus Group Guide is:

Focus Group Guide: is a guided set of questions, organized into sections that will help the facilitator to lead the discussion and ensure that he/she is able to collect the information needed for the research project. The guide should help the facilitator to stay on topic but should not be used as a word for word script.

3. Explain: before you brainstorm questions for your focus group guide, you are going to review some tips about what makes a good question for a focus group. Review the tips below and post them somewhere in the room for participants to refer to later.

Good Questions for Focus Groups…

  • Are open-ended
  • Sound conversational
  • Are easy to say
  • Are clear and simple
  • Are short and to the point
  • Include clear directions

4. Next refresh participants on the goals of your project/campaign, research questions, and who will participate in your focus group. Post this information on butcher paper so participants can refer back to them as needed.

5. Next ask the group to brainstorm categories of questions for your focus group, based on your research goals and questions provide one example to start the discussion (For example, if your research is focused on public housing, one section of category of questions could be about policing and another about repairs).

6. After the brainstorm, sum up what was said and create 3-4 categories for questions.

7. Split participants into small groups.  Give each group a different category.

8. Ask each small group to designate a facilitator to lead the discussion and take notes.  Give each small group pen and paper and ask them to brainstorm questions for the focus group for their category.

9. Come back together as a big group and ask each group to share their questions. Record them on butcher paper.

10. Explain that these questions can be used to develop your focus group guide.

11. After the training, type the questions and use as a starting point for your focus group guide (see Tool 3.9 for a sample focus group guide).

Activity: 3.5 Facilitating a Focus Group

Purpose of Activity:

This activity will give participants a chance to practice facilitating a focus group.  It will also allow the participants to become familiar with the focus group guide and to identify common challenges in facilitating a focus group.


To practice leading and guiding the focus group discussion

To test focus group questions for flow and clarity

Tools Needed:

Tool 3.7: Benefits and Challenges of Using Focus Groups

Tool 3.8: Tips for Focus Group Facilitation


Materials Needed:

Butcher Paper


Draft focus group guide

Flip chart with focus group questions written out

Butcher paper with sample ground rules written out

Digital Voice Recorder

Pieces of paper with different roles for focus group participants

Time Needed:

2 hours

Part I: Running Your Focus Group (35 minutes)

Facilitator Instructions:

1. Facilitator should briefly go through “Benefits and Challenges of Using Focus Groups” (Tool 3.7).

2. Next, review “Tips for Focus Group Facilitation” (Tool 3.8), answering questions and clarifying as needed.

3. Finally, walk participants through the focus group guide, making sure to explain each section and read all focus group questions out loud.


Part III. Mock Focus Group (1 hour)

Facilitator Instructions:

1. Before the training, prepare slips of paper with the following roles for the focus group participants (each role presents a common challenge for focus group facilitation):

“The Debater:” Disagrees with other participants and tries to turn the conversation into a debate.

“The Wanderer:” Brings up different topics, unrelated to the focus group questions.

“The Quiet One:” Gives short answers with one or two words and does not elaborate.

“The Talker:” Dominates the conversation, interrupts other participants.

“The Counselor:” Tries to help others fix their problems, providing specific advice.

“The Disrupter:” Answers cell phone and/or gets up in the middle of the conversation to go to the bathroom or take a call.

2. Choose someone to be the facilitator.  Everyone else will be the focus group participants.

3. Ask the facilitator to leave the room for a few moments.

4. Hand each participant the slip of paper that specifies which “role” they will play.  Ask each participant to play that role during the mock focus group.  Answer any questions about the different roles.

NOTE: In addition to the “roles” you may also want to create “characters” for the participants to play. For example, if your focus group participants are public housing residents, you could have people create the following characters: someone who has been threatened with eviction, someone that has been waiting for over a year for a repair; and someone who feels like the tenant association doesn’t represent their concerns. This may help to put participants at ease and ensure a variety of issues for the facilitator to address.

5. Set the room up as if you were having a focus group.  Participants should sit in a circle, close enough that the recorder can pick up all of their voices.

6. Put the flip chart with focus group questions in a place that all participants can see.

7. Explain that the facilitator is going to lead the group through a mini-focus group using the focus group guide we have created for our project.

8. Begin focus group. Depending on time, go through all or some of the guide. Be sure to keep track of time so that facilitators can practice keeping on schedule.

9. Afterward, debrief for 10 minutes by asking participants to provide feedback on the mock focus group as well as the workshop as a whole. Use the questions below:

Feedback/Debrief on Mock Focus Group Questions

  • What worked or was challenging for the facilitator?
  • How easy is it to ask the questions?
  • Do the questions seem clear and easy to understand?
  • Do the questions flow easily from one topic to another?
  • How can the questions/process be improved?
  • Is the facilitator doing a good job in asking follow-up questions? What are some suggestions you have for improvement?

Tool: 3.7 Benefits and Challenges of Focus Groups

Focus Group Definition:

A focus group is a guided discussion, led by a well-prepared facilitator where the participants will answer a set of questions. Focus groups are generally recorded and the answers that the participants provide are used as qualitative data in a final report. Qualitative data are stories or in depth ideas about a topic, rather than numbers and statistics.

Focus Group Goals:

  • To collect in depth ideas and explanations from a specific group of people;
  • To have participants answer a specific set of questions to gather qualitative data;
  • To collect clear recordings or notes of the focus groups that can be transcribed and then analyzed;
  • To deepen the engagement of the participants in the research process and the organization’s campaigns.


  • Focus groups are used when you need more than just numbers or statistics to answer your research questions. They are used to gather more detailed information such as stories or in depth solutions to problems.
  • They are also a good public education and organizing tool.  They can help bring potential members into your organization and to allow people to see that they don’t just have isolated problems.
  • Focus groups are used when you want to talk to several people at once about experiences with the same issues. In group settings, participants often build off each other and can often come up with more creative ideas and solutions than they would have individually.  On the other hand, interviews are used to gather in depth information from just one person.



  • Sometimes people will not be as honest in a group of people as they would be one-on-one.
  • People may think that the focus group is an opportunity to air their grievances about a particular issue or provide support or advice to one another rather than a time to answer specific questions.
  • People may also think it is a time to debate an issue rather than allowing everyone to express their own ideas.
  • If people come into your organization through a focus group, they may think that all meetings in your organization are research based rather than action based.

Tool: 3.8 Tips for Focus Group Facilitation

Checklist of Materials Needed For a Focus Group

  • A notepad and pens or laptop for note-taking
  • A flip chart, markers, tape for group activities
  • Informed Consent forms
  • Sign in form
  • Extra pens for participants to sign consent forms
  • Focus group guide
  • Name tags
  • Brief demographic questionnaires


Recording equipment:

  • Digital recorder
  • Sound storage discs/tapes/cards
  • Extension cord
  • Extra batteries


Room Setup Checklist:

  • Room with minimal background noise / traffic
  • Chairs set up in a circle
  • If recording, table for the equipment


Logistics Checklist

  • Secure and set up space, food, transportation, childcare and any other onsite needs.
  • If recording, test the equipment. Be comfortable and familiar with equipment.
  • Hand questionnaire to participants to fill out and collect before you begin.


Roles Needed For the Focus Group

1) Facilitator: asks questions and guides the discussion. Should be well-trained and comfortable facilitating group discussions. Should also be very familiar with the issue that is being discussed.

2) Note-taker/Facilitator support: should be good listener and able to quickly and accurately record what is being said. Should have good typing skills. Should be familiar with the recording equipment if you are planning to record the focus group session. Should support the facilitator during the session with any logistical tasks such as collecting consent forms.

3) Interpreter/Translator (if needed): should ideally be experienced as an interpreter, should be somewhat familiar with the issue of focus.


Tips for During/After the Focus Groups

  • Everyone must sign consent forms before starting focus groups;
  • Set aside more than enough time for the running of the group;
  • Make sure you tell people that they must attend the entire focus group;
  • If recording, immediately after the focus groups, make sure the recording has worked. Press Save if your recorder requires that;
  • Type up any notes taken;
  • Transcribe recording (if recorded);
  • Analysis of Focus Group transcripts (more info in data analysis training).

Tool: 3.9 Sample Focus Group Guide - VOCAL NY

Download from left

Tool: 3.25 Sample Focus Group Guide - RTTC

Download from the left

Right to the City Focus Group Guide

(2 hours and 40 minutes)

I. Welcome & Overview (10 minutes)

Hello everyone.  Thank you for coming out today.  My name is __________. I work with the organization_________________, which is part of the Right to the City alliance.  You’re here today so that the Right to the City alliance, can hear from you about your experiences living in public housing and what suggestions you have for making improvements to public housing.

Have any of you heard of Right to the City before today?  [Pause, if yes then…]

  • What have you heard?
  • What do you know?


For those of you who didn’t know, Right to the City is a national alliance of organizations working to combat gentrification and displacement of people from their homes and communities.  The same type of focus group is being held with public housing residents in 8 different cities around the country including Miami, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Washington D.C, and New Orleans.

We’ll be writing up a report based on what we find out from you today and the other focus groups we’re holding around the country.  We’ll be using the report to influence elected officials and other people who have power to make changes to the public housing system.  We will also use the report to increase public housing residents voice and power in the discussions about your home and community.

Participating in this focus group will not affect your living status at your development or your place on the waiting list and we are not working for the public housing authority.  We will NOT use your name in the report unless you want us to and we will ask you to sign a form to give consent that you want to participate in this focus group and share your experiences with the resident participation system in public housing.

II. Ground Rules (5 minutes)

We want you to feel free to speak openly.

I will be facilitating the discussion with some questions.  The goal of this discussion is to hear everyone’s point of view about public housing, no matter how different everyone’s opinions may be.  I will be recording the discussion so that we can capture what you say to use for our report.  I am going to ask that you say your first name before you speak so that we can tell when different people are speaking.

We want to emphasize that we will not use your name unless you want us to.  Please take this time now to sign the consent form to participate in this group (hand out consent form).  If you do not feel comfortable now that you know more about this, feel free to leave at this time

I would also like to emphasize that everyone here has the right to their own opinions, and that all opinions are welcome.  There are no specific answers that we are looking for, only your experiences and opinions.

I would like to hear from everyone in the group, and would like for everyone to feel comfortable in speaking.  I ask that you all respect each other and this discussion, no matter what you may hear.  We are not here to judge anyone.

III. Introductions and Opening Questions (20 mins.)


Let’s start with a round of introductions. We’ll go around the table and everyone should state:

· Your First Name

If you currently live or formerly have lived in public housing…

· Which public housing development do (or did) you live in?

· How long have you lived in public housing or how long have you been displaced if you no longer live there?

If you are currently on the waiting list for public housing…

· How long have you been on the waiting list?

ü What are two concerns that come to mind when you think about public housing and your neighborhood or community?

IV. Overall Experience and Issues in Public Housing (The Need) (20 minutes)

We are going to start by hearing from you about some of the overall issues and concerns you have about public housing.

If you currently live in public housing….

ü What do you feel is the best thing about living in public housing?

ü How would your life or the lives of your family be different if you could not live in public housing?


If you are on the waiting list for public housing…

ü What do you think will be the best thing about living in public housing?

ü How do you feel that your life would be different if you DID live in public housing?





V. Accessibility (15 minutes)

Next we are going to discuss the process for getting into public housing, the waitlists, and some of the barriers that exist that make it difficult for people to live in public housing.

ü What do you think are the barriers to living in public housing (i.e. application fees,  background checks, immigration status, credit checks, good standing/bad standing)

ü How do these barriers affect you and your community?

ü Have you ever been or are you currently on the public housing waitlist? Please describe your experience, where you lived while you were on the waitlist and if and how you finally got into public housing?


VI. Affordability (15 minutes)

Next we are going to discuss some of the challenges we have living in today’s economy. We all know that there is a recession going on and that living in our city is expensive. We also know that housing is one of the biggest expenses we have.

ü How do you feel about the amount of money you have to pay for rent and how does this impact your life or your family?

ü If you didn’t have to pay rent, what are some of the ways you would spend the extra money?

ü What are some things that could be done (by government or someone else) to help you and your family meet your basic needs?

VII. Demolition (15 minutes)

Next we are going to talk about some of the solutions that the government has come up with to make improvements to public housing and hear your point of view on these policies and programs. One thing the government has done, in some cities, is to tear down public housing that is “distressed” or has had a lot of problems. Sometimes, the government will replace the public housing, other times they will not.

ü If your public housing was demolished, please explain what happened to you and your family? Where did you go? Did you get new housing? What kind of housing?

ü How do you feel about the government tearing down public housing? Do you think this is good or bad and why?

ü Do you think there is enough public housing in your city? Why or why not? How much would be enough?

VIII. Perceptions of Public Housing (15 minutes)

Next we are going to discuss how you feel about the way that public housing is portrayed in the media and how mainstream society views public housing.

ü How do you feel about the way that public housing is talked about or written about in the news? (Facilitator Note: encourage people to think about the article we read in the community workshop)

ü What do you think that people should know about public housing that they do not get from reading or watching the news?

IX. Budgeting Priorities (15 min)

Next we are going to talk about how public housing authorities spend their budgets. In the community workshop we talked about the top three things that one housing authority spends it budgets on (put this data on butcher paper for participants to see).

ü If you were in charge of the budget for the public housing system in your city, how would you spend the money and why? (Facilitator Note: encourage participants to think about how the housing authority spends their budget, look at % on butcher paper.)

ü How should the money that is spent by the housing authority be monitored? Should residents have a role is this monitoring and why?

X. Our Policy Solutions (20 minutes)

Finally, you are going to be in the shoes of elected officials and policy makers. We want you to talk about some of the ideas you have on how to improve public housing.

ü What are some ways you suggest the government should make improvements to public housing? (Facilitator Note: encourage people to think about the community workshop where we envisioned the ideal public housing, what apartments would look like, green space, etc.)

ü What are some ways you suggest that the government reduce the number of people on the waiting lists and the amount of time people must be on the waiting list?

ü What kind of community services do you think would be helpful in your community?

ü Who do you think should be able to decide public housing policies? Why?

XI. Summary and Wrap Up and Thanks (10 minutes)


(Give 2‐3 minute summary of discussion thus far)


  • Did I correctly describe what was said?


The purpose of this discussion group was to get your input about what is working and what is not working in the public housing system in your city. We will then write up a report, which we hope to have finished by the summer or fall of this year.  We will then use the white paper to meet with government officials and other people that have the power to make changes to public and subsidized housing policy.  INSERT INFO ABOUT RTTC HUD CAMPAIGN If you are interested in becoming involved in the Right to the City campaign to improve public housing, come talk to me after the focus group.

  • Is there anything that we missed or that you came here wanting to say about public housing that you didn’t get to say?



Thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this Focus Group.  We’ve learned a lot from you.

Case Study: 3.3 Right to the City National's Report: We Call These Projects Home

Background on Organization and Issue

Right to the City (RTTC) is a national alliance of membership-based organizations and allies across 9 cities, organizing to build a united response to gentrification and displacement in our cities.

This research project was conceived of and developed through close partnership between RTTC grassroots organizations: Miami Workers Center, POWER, and Community Voices Heard, —and RTTC resource groups: the DataCenter, Community Development Project and Advancement Project.

Present-day U.S. government housing policies are forcing low-income people out of their cities. Public housing, one of the last options of affordable housing for low-income people in the U.S., is being destroyed and replaced by mixed-income housing. Under this process, developers backed by government contracts and encouraged by federal legislation, demolish public housing and replace them with far fewer housing affordable to the lowest income families. As a result, hundreds of thousands of public housing units have been lost, families have been displaced, and communities and social networks have been torn apart. Additionally, as low-income housing becomes increasingly privatized, it is more difficult to ensure that affordable housing remains affordable and that private landlords do not displace low-income tenants. While this crisis threatens the health of cities, government officials and private developers continue to characterize mixed-income housing policies as progress.

Below is a description of the RTTC National Public Housing research project, based on the Participatory Action Research guiding framework (see Tool 2.1 and 2.2).


Were the Organizing Goals connected to this research?

  • To promote public housing as one of the last options of permanently affordable housing.
  • To shift the policy debate about public housing to include the voices of low-income community members.
  • To educate elected officials and policy makers about the real-life impact of demolition disinvestment and privatization of public housing.
  • To build power nationally among low-income community members.

Overall questions did RTTC want to answer through their research?

  • How have low-income residents been impacted by the destruction of and disinvestment in public housing?
  • What are the consequences of mixed income housing policies?
  • What is the need for public housing as a permanently affordable housing source?
  • What needs to be done to ensure public housing remains a source of permanently affordable housing?

Information did RTTC need to collect to answer these research questions?

  • Trends in public housing policy making over the past several years;
  • Data on the need for public housing (waiting lists, economic indicators, etc);
  • Data on the displacement of residents following demolition;
  • Impact of privatization and mixed income housing on residents;
  • Stories and experiences of public housing residents;
  • Proposals from public housing residents about how to ensure public housing remains a source of permanently affordable housing.


Is this research useful or important for RTTC?

  • Internally: The research gave RTTC National and member organizations data about how disinvestment and demolition policies are affecting residents, providing key information for campaign development. It also aided RTTC in leadership development of members, contributed to base-building activities and engaged RTTC members on the national level. The project also fostered collaboration and coalition building efforts between 15 different organizations across six cities.
  • Externally: The research results helped to shift the policy debate about public housing to include the voices of residents, a primary objective of the project. It also helped RTTC connect with public housing policy makers and participate in the national public housing debate.


Are the stakeholders in this issue?

  • Public housing residents and other low-income community members.

Is RTTC trying to influence?

  • U.S. Congress; Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials; the Administration; local public housing authorities.


Did RTTC gather information (what methods did they use)?

  • RTTC primarily used focus groups to collect qualitative data from public housing residents. The focus groups allowed RTTC to collect the stories and experiences about the impact of housing policies on low-income residents and achieve the goal of highlighting residents’ voices in the public housing policy debate.

How Research Supported RTTC’s Organizing Efforts

In 2010, RTTC National released the final report summarizing the research findings at a congressional briefing in Washington D.C. co-sponsored by Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY). The report included the voices of public housing residents from seven cities and various policy recommendations calling on Congress and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to strengthen and expand public housing.  The report received attention from several media outlets, ensuring the voices of residents were heard in the national public housing debate.

Click here to read the report.