Focus groups

  • A focus group or group discussion consists of a group of strangers brought together in a neutral location, to discuss an issue, or to respond to ideas or materials that are of interest to the client of the research.
  • The group is moderated by a trained facilitator using a discussion or topic guide to steer the conversation. The size of the group varies between six and ten participants, although mini-groups with four to six participants can be useful for complex or sensitive subject matters. Each discussion group tends to be fairly homogenous in terms of demographics or attitudes towards a topic; this way, differences between the groups can be analysed. A typical discussion group lasts between 90 minutes and one hour. Some groups are held in viewing facilities, whereby clients and other interested parties can observe the group through a two-way mirror, but they can also be held in-home or in any other convenient location.
  • Online groups, whereby participants contribute to a real-time discussion board are growing in popularity and can be useful in cases where it is difficult for participants to gather in the same location at the same time. However, face-to-face groups remain the optimum method.

Example: Focus groups with smokers to explore and discuss barriers to cessation. Groups could be split according to age and gender to understand how these barriers differ accordingly.


  • A workshop describes an extended group discussion (from three hours to one day), often with more participants (and correspondingly more than one facilitator) than in a standard focus group.
  • Workshops are generally conducted to allow more in-depth exploration of an issue, product or activity than would be possible in a standard group discussion. They may also offer the researcher the opportunity to encourage participants to generate creative or new ideas.

Example: Workshops with a range of participants to provide feedback on a draft advertising campaign for screening services.

Depth interviews

  • A depth interview consists of a one-on-one discussion between a moderator and participant. As with group discussions, depth interviews are used to provide feedback or insights into a particular issue, but can also be useful for gathering detailed case study information, for example on decision-making processes, or detailed assessment of stimulus material or forms.
  • Interview lengths can vary from just a few minutes to several hours, although 30-90 minutes is standard. Interviews may take place at the participant’s home or at another location such as their workplace. Depth interviews are often face-to-face but can also be conducted by telephone.
  • There are a number of variations on this method, often used to help the participant feel more comfortable about the interview process: - paired depths – interviews with two people - triads – interviews with three people - friendship pairs – interviews with two friends.

Example: Friendship pairs with teenagers to explore attitudes to sexual health.


Originally a term used in anthropology, ethnography traditionally refers to a practice where researchers spend long periods of time living within a culture in order to study it. The term has been adopted within qualitative market research to describe occasions where researchers spend a certain amount of time – hours, days or even weeks – observing or interacting with participants in areas of their everyday lives. This enables researchers to gather their information over time and first hand, or ‘in-situ’. This methodology is used to gain a deeper understanding of how people live their lives and explore the extent to which their actual behaviour corresponds to what they say they do.

Example: Researcher ‘living’ with family for a weekend to understand their lifestyles in terms of diet and exercise.


Related to ethnography, observation helps researchers to understand an activity or group by watching it. Some 'pure' observation may be carried out (for example, watching shoppers in a store) but observation is also often accompanied by a degree of interaction between the observer and the observed. For example, researchers might go to a social event with respondents, not only watching but also joining in the activity. They would then also ask some questions and talk to the participants about what is going on. Example: Researcher watching how people shop in supermarkets to look for better ways to position fruit and vegetables in the store.

Deliberative research

Deliberative research is a tool that enables the public to be involved in decision making and can be a useful methodology for policy consultations. It has many of the characteristics of qualitative group discussions or workshops but the focus is on participants’ viewpoints after they have had the opportunity to ‘deliberate’ the issues (compared to traditional qualitative methods that seek to understand current viewpoints). Deliberative research tends to involve:

  • Extended time period for participants to make considered decision
  • Information provided over the course of the process to allow participants to make informed decisions
  • Information provided from multiple points of view
  • Heterogeneous groups of participants so that issues are debated by ‘citizens’ with different perspectives

Deliberative research covers a range of techniques, including:

  • Citizens’ Juries - Consist of a small panel of non-specialists, modelled on the structure of a criminal jury (12-16 people) - Receive evidence from a selection of ‘witnesses’ – who may be experts, health care professionals or members of the general public - Examine an issue of public significance in detail over the course of two to four days and deliver a ‘verdict’
  • Citizens’ Workshops / Citizens’ Forums - Similar characteristics to juries but less ‘formal’ - Involve more people – workshops consist of 12-20 participants; forums can be up to 100 - Provide less time to deliberate than juries – likely to be between a half and two days - Can conduct multiple workshops / forums and so provide the opportunity for regional representation - Can involve voting and pre-and post-questionnaires for (semi) quantitative results
  • Citizens’ Summits - Similar to workshops / forums but much larger scale – 1000 participants or more (in one venue or across several locations) - Often used for high profile and difficult areas of policy
  • Deliberative polling - Polling is conducted pre-deliberation - Participants are then given briefing materials and/or the opportunity to put questions to experts - Participants are re-polled to see how views have changed

Example: Holding a day long forum with citizens to discuss proposed changes to the organ donation system and how this might affect their rights.

Collaborative research

Collaborative research involves mixing participants from the general public with participants from the client organisation, for example, policy makers or staff. A deliberative strand usually runs throughout but this model changes dynamics by challenging and breaking down ‘received’ wisdom and professional boundaries. It provides a breadth of perspective by identifying common ground and shared understanding as well as recognising divergent views and providing space for participants to develop shared solutions. Example: Bringing patients and hospital staff together to discuss service reconfigurations