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Examples: A focus group of parents of preschoolers meets to discuss child care needs. Parents share their views on local child care programs, and on what could be done to improve them. A focus group of senior citizens meets at the new senior center. What do they think of the programs being offered? What are their own suggestions and ideas?

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An agency wants to open a group home for developmentally disabled adults in a quiet residential area. It convenes a group of prospective neighbors.

What are their concerns? Can this work? A focus group is different in three basic ways: The main difference is the group has a specific, focused discussion topic. The group has a trained leader, or facilitator. Members are actively encouraged to express their opinions. When you are considering the introduction of a new program or service. When you want to ask questions that can't easily be asked or answered on a written survey.

When you want to supplement the knowledge you can gain from written surveys. When you know, or can find someone, who is an experienced and skilled group leader. When you have the time, knowledge, and resources to recruit a willing group of focus group participants.

Try this exercise : Here are several situations when you might want to know more about community opinions before taking action. A new strain of flu is going around. Half the town seems to be catching it. What should be done about it? A wave of break-ins has hit a nearby neighborhood. How can this be stopped? A new playground is being planned.

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What features should go into it? Our viewpoints: Controlling the flu is not a matter of citizen opinion, but rather of medical facts, and of public health prevention and treatment. A focus group is probably not helpful here. Increased police presence may help; but a structured discussion among neighbors might hit upon other useful solutions. A focus group could be quite worthwhile. Citizen input is definitely called for here. A focus group could be an ideal way for finding it out.

The Pros and Cons of Groups Should you collect your opinions from groups , or from individuals? But there are some downsides, too. Consider your own situation. How do these factors trade off? What is the best solution for you? Before you begin A focus group is a small-group discussion guided by a trained leader. Recheck your goals. Ask: "Why do I want to conduct a focus group? Are you planning to use other methods for learning about opinions as well? In other words, so far: Think before you start, look before you leap. If yes, which ones, and why?

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If no, is this the single best method to use to find out what you want? Find a good leader.

Probably someone who: Take a careful look around. Has experience facilitating groups Knows something about the topic Will relate well to the focus group participants Will work together with you to give you the outcomes you want Find a recorder. Decide who should be invited. Decide about incentives.

Decide on the meeting particulars. Specifically: Pin these down before you start signing people up.

What day? What place? What time? How long? How many groups? Prepare your questions.

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Why is that? How should they change? What kinds of things would you like to see happen? What do you think about that? For example, if the main focus group topic was "community policing," some key aspects to cover might be visibility, sensitivity, interaction, respect, etc. Do you agree with this? How about others of you.

What do you think? Call them up. Email them. Or find them. Remember: Other things equal, personal contact works best.

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Stress your benefits. Why should people come? Review the arrangements. Is everything ready to go? When the group meets Conduct the group A common sequence of events for many focus groups goes something like this: The leader usually takes responsibility for carrying them out. Thank people for coming.