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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Focus Groups

Focus groups are a staple of qualitative research, and are most appropriate for:

  • understanding the breadth of the issue, the range and scope, not the frequency
  • collecting an emic or "insider's view" from the group being studied and, as a result, producing measures with strong validity
  • probing for information about sensitive contexts

In addition, they are also incorporated into research designs where:

  • there is a low frequency of respondents
  • costs prohibit gathering data in other ways
  • one is seeking targeted viewpoints

Further, they are frequently used as the basis for exploratory research, or to pilot test concepts that can later be developed into a survey. The objective in focus groups for research (as opposed to those conducted for marketing purposes) is to get at the quality and range of responses. They are not an effort at "consensus building"; differences in opinions help define the range of an issue. They can be conducted in person or by phone.

General considerations:

  1. Participants should be given compensation, which may be monetary or non-monetary.
  2. Obtain consent for all participants about taping (if applicable) and uses of the data.
  3. Provide participants with a copy of the findings, or summary of the findings, that has been cleared with the client.
  4. Other recruitment variables will vary depending on the nature of the project.

Recruitment details

The following screening variables should be considered when composing focus groups with blind or visually impaired respondents, or when conducting focus group research on blindness-related topics:

  • Vision loss—minimum is self-reported, e.g., "ongoing difficulty seeing words and letters in ordinary newsprint, (even with glasses on, if usually worn)." For example, no usable vision vs. otherwise visually impaired. When considering the degree of vision loss, we generally advise organizing groups according to whether they use visual or non-visual means (e.g., screen magnification vs. screen readers) to access information; they are grouped separately from each other if their concerns tend to differ.

  • Use of the internet—has ever used the internet, and has current access at home, work, a library or other place that the person does visit. Computer or Internet use can act as a proxy for other measures. For example, their level of experience may also imply other differences, such as a general degree of independence, access to information, familiarity with the blindness system, etc.

  • Language/literacy—English-speaking, unless some provisions are made for moderators who speak another language; literacy presumed if has used Internet.

The following characteristics can be confirmed by a telephone screening interview, and used to achieve diversity:

  • Geographic location—broad census-defined regions, i.e. east, midwest, west, south

  • Age or "life stage"—e.g., school/transition age, young and middle-aged adults, older adults)

  • Employment status—employed now or ever vs. never employed

  • Educational attainment—and implied literacy level

  • Age at loss of vision/length of time visually impaired—these are related but separate variables

  • Ethnic identity—1st or 2nd generation U.S. citizen, any nationality, African-American/Blacks of 3rd+ generation, other)

  • Health status—self-reported as "excellent, very good or good" vs. "fair or poor"

Methodological Limitations

It is always advisable to know what the limitations inherent in one's research design are, in order to minimize their impact, if possible, and to know how they may shape the extent and quality of the data gathered. Consequently, researchers should consider the following:

  • Number of groups—Given the nature of one's project, there may be many relevant demographic, health, computer usage variables, etc. under consideration. Consider the number of groups and/or individuals involved in the study. Do they represent the minimum acceptable composition? How would you expand your project if you had unlimited time and resources (e.g., including Spanish-speaking users, etc)?

  • Composition and size of groups—It is desirable to make focus groups more homogeneous in respects besides whether they use visual or nonvisual access; this may only be possible with a larger number of groups. For example, in a Medicare study, we aimed to have separate groups of beneficiaries by age and by disability status. However, limited time and resources required us to occasionally mix those types of respondents within a group.

  • Recruitment sources—A main limitation is the heavy reliance on a single strategy or source for recruitment (e.g., via electronic advertisements to listservs, or through a rehabilitation provider). While online sources or known computer user groups are valuable resources to achieve relatively well-targeted recruitment in a short period of time, this design will not result in representativeness, and is biased toward people skilled in using computers with assistive technology. Similarly, recruiting through rehabilitation agencies limits the respondents to those who have received rehab services.

  • Use of prior research subjects—has the advantage that one already knows about many of an individual's relevant characteristics, but has the disadvantage that those persons may become "professional respondents" and therefore less representative of other users.

Additional Resources

Michael Quinn Patton. Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods. SAGE Publications, second edition, 1990.

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