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Designing focus groups and interviews for deeper insight

Designing focus groups and interviews for deeper insight

By Laura Sundstrom

Survey fatigue is real. And we all know that qualitative data are crucial to understanding the nuances, details, and context of your work. But how do you go about getting qualitative data? One of the best ways to understand the lives and experiences of the people your program is impacting is through focus groups or interviews. Focus groups and interviews are great for when you have key evaluation questions related to capturing the “lived experience” of your stakeholders, giving voice to the “how” and “why” of your programming, and exploring a topic you know little about. 

Focus Groups or Interviews?

Focus groups and interviews start a conversation with your participants instead of handing them a predetermined survey. When you start to learn about a particular program experience, you can follow that experience and ask additional follow-up questions that help you build a rich story of what’s happening. The difference between focus groups and interviews is how many people you’re talking with at any one time. Interviews are one on one, and you have the opportunity to go deeper with that person’s particular experience. Focus groups tend to be between 6 and 12 people and generally explore similarities and differences of experiences across participants. When deciding between focus groups and interviews, you want to think about how similar the participants are and the sensitivity of the topic. Are they going to have a similar enough experience that it makes sense for them to talk about it as a group? Is the topic one that people would feel comfortable sharing with strangers? Focus groups also do have some time and cost efficiencies because you are able to talk to more people at one time.

Writing Good Questions

Now that you’ve landed on doing focus groups or interviews, how do you actually write good questions that get at the information you need to answer your key evaluation questions? Here are my favorite tips for writing effective focus group and interview questions:

  • Ask open-ended questions: Focus groups and interviews are your opportunity to hear directly from your program beneficiaries – you want to hear their stories, experiences, and opinions. If you are going to ask them a yes/no question or a question with implied categories (e.g., how satisfied are you with this program?), you might as well send them a survey.

  • Frame questions as specifically as possible: While you want your questions to be open-ended, you don’t want them to be so open-ended that your respondents either don’t know how to answer them or you don’t get the answers you are actually looking for. Make sure that your questions are specific enough that respondents will know how to respond in the way that you are looking for.

  • Avoid leading questions: Leading questions signal to your respondents the answer that you are looking for or imply a certain experience. For example, asking something like “how hard was it to find affordable housing?” implies that it was hard. Instead, try asking “tell me about your experience finding affordable housing.”

  • Probe for more information: The beauty of focus groups and interviews is that you can ask the follow-up question. Don’t just ask the question that’s on the page. If your respondent says something interesting, ask about it! Easy ways to dig deeper or for more specifics can be: “Can you tell me more about that experience?” or “Do you have an example of a time that happened?”

  • Pay attention to question order: While not specifically about writing questions, question order is really important to consider when crafting an effective focus group or interview. Your goal is to build rapport with your respondents. Start with “warm-up” questions where respondents can talk about themselves (and get to know each other, in the case of focus groups) before going into more specific or in-depth questions that require more thought or comfort.

Let’s take a look at an example. We were working on a needs assessment to understand the big social needs in communities around Colorado. One of the key evaluation questions was: What are the biggest community service needs among Colorado communities? We did a series of interviews with community leaders across the state, and one of the first sets of questions we asked was:

  • Over the last year, what have been the most pressing issues or needs in your community?

    • How do you know that is a need in your community?

    • What are some strategies or promising approaches that the community could use to address this need?

    • What are the barriers to addressing this need in your community?

In another example, we were trying to understand how schools use distributed leadership models. Our client’s key evaluation question was: In what ways are distributed leadership models structured at schools? We did a series of focus groups with teachers and school leaders One set of questions we asked them was:

  • Can you paint a picture of how your instructional leadership team is structured?

    • Who is involved? What type of commitment is it?

    • What does it mean for an instructional leadership team to have a “good” or “strong” level of involvement?

Check out our free resources on Picking the Right Methods to Answer Your Questions for more information on designing, conducting, and analyzing focus groups and interviews.


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Laura Sundstrom, MSW | Evaluator

Laura specializes in building evaluation capacity, helping clients understand the “why” behind evaluation tasks, and leaves an impressive trail of evaluation skills wherever she goes.


Laura Sundstrom