Kristina Clement is the Student Success Librarian for the University of Wyoming Libraries. Her research interests include customer service motivation in academic libraries, library space and instructional assessment, Universal Design for Learning in library instruction, and Open Educational Resources. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @kc_librarian1
Samantha Cook is the Instructional Design Librarian at the University of Wyoming. Her research interests involve Universal Design for Learning in library instruction, people with invisible disabilities in the academic library, Open Educational Resources, and instruction for rural distance students. She can be contacted at email@example.com or via twitter @Sammy_Librarian.
Have you ever ran a focus group and declared afterward that you’d never do it again? We sure did. Focus groups have the potential to become the bane of our user experience research–so why do we keep doing them? We found ourselves asking this question and more after every focus group in a recent study. Why is it so difficult to get students to show up? What kind of food will lure them in? What kind of gift card is enough to get them to participate? Can we even get enough funding to provide incentives?
This 3-part series will discuss best practices and overcoming frustrations for doing focus groups for library research. We will also explore our failures, the practical lessons we received from conducting focus groups, and the incredibly valuable information we uncovered along the way.
Myths, Realities, and Adaptations
“Which set of practices and standards should we go with for what we need to accomplish in the library? What is going to work best for the library-focused research that we want to do?”
There’s often not a lot of love lost on focus groups when it comes to library research. Anecdotally, we’ve heard of more than a few librarians who have attempted a focus group study and then swore to never do one again. Best practices and procedures for focus groups often talk about the need to host a large number of groups to collect enough information, are not detailed on the challenges you might face with this method, and are not always library-specific. A quick Google search will yield plenty of best practices from a variety of industries that give tips to run the best possible focus group, but they often differ in their recommendations. This left us wondering: which set of practices and standards should we go with for what we need to accomplish in the library? What is going to work best for the library-focused research that we want to do?
In the process of designing and executing our research, we came up with a handful of “myths” regarding focus groups and best practices. Below, we outline four “myths,” describe our reality, and how we managed to adapt the standard practices and procedures to work for our library research.
Myth #1: Focus groups are only useful for certain kinds of research, like product testing and market research.
Reality: It really depends on what you want to know and how you want to know it. There are many ways of collecting data, so you need to ask yourself, “What can I get from a focus group that I can’t get from other data collection methods?” Some instances in which focus groups might be useful for library research include:
- When you want collective opinions from a homogenous group of students (i.e. learning how English majors use the library).
- When you want to see if something you’ve designed is actually appealing or useful to a certain group of students or faculty.
- When you’ve designed or launched a new service and want collective feedback.
- When you want candid feedback about certain library content and how useful it is to certain groups of students or faculty.
- When you are sick of doing surveys and want more focused, straightforward answers from real patrons and users.
- When you want to let your patrons and users interact with one another to reveal things about library services, resources, and spaces that you might not get feedback on without their interaction.
Do note, however, that these scenarios are not exclusive to focus groups. Focus groups might just reveal something that other data collection might not in situations like these.
How we adapted: Sometimes, focus groups can be a good follow-up to a previous research project and help shed a different light on what’s already been done. In our case, two librarians at our institution had done an excellent user experience research project to evaluate the layout and function of our LibGuides. We decided that we wanted to continue their work, but take the next step and look at content instead of layout, and focus groups seemed to be the best way to gather a collective opinion rather than an individual experience.
Myth #2: You must have X number of people to run a focus group, or you won’t get enough information.
Reality: Standard focus group size for other industries is approximately 6-12 people. Library focus groups can realistically consist of 3-6 people. These are more in line with mini focus groups and can be more effective for the kind of practical research we tend to do in libraries. For example, the Learning Space Toolkit suggests that focus groups should be at least three people and no more than eight, and based on our experiences, we agree.
How we adapted: Originally, we tried to get anywhere from 6-8 people to show up to our groups but when we realized that wasn’t going to happen every single time, we changed our perspective and were grateful for the ones who did show up and shared their thoughts with us.
Myth #3:You have to stick to the script and questions to get awesome and useful information out of focus groups.
“Sometimes the information students share will not be immediately helpful or related to the focus group topic. Sometimes what you learn from the group is something you may have never even considered.”
Reality: The questions you ask are important and must be carefully crafted. Learning Space Toolkit suggests having approximately six questions for an hour-long focus group. These questions should be designed to provoke informative and insightful answers from the participants. But, that does not always happen. Sometimes the information students share will not be immediately helpful or related to the focus group topic. Sometimes what you learn from the group is something you may have never even considered. And because of this, it’s important to build in flexibility with the question set.
How we adapted: Initially, we planned to stick exactly to the script and the questions we created. However, after our first focus group we realized that because of different experiences within the group, we might not be able to ask the questions in the exact order because sometimes we had to encourage the students with additional questions. Be prepared to ask follow-up questions on the fly to help facilitate the conversation.
Myth #4: If your plans fall to pieces, you should just scrap everything and start over.
Reality: Okay, so this might not be an actual myth of focus groups, but it sure seemed to plague us throughout our research project. Starting a new research project can be exciting. Then, you get into it and start running into problems that can beat you down. The urge to scrap it and start over can be strong.
How we adapted: It is important to remember throughout any research project that there may be moments that make you want to give up; this was especially true for us when we had challenging focus groups. We reminded ourselves that our research was valuable, no matter how difficult it might be. The information we were collecting will help us as researchers, help our library and fellow librarians improve services, and ultimately help our users with their own research and academic careers.
There are many really great resources that can help get you started when navigating down the path of focus groups and here are a few that stood out to us:
- We mentioned this resource a lot throughout this post, but the Learning Space Toolkit has a great list of different things you should consider when conducting a focus group. We like this resource because it is specifically related to libraries.
- Four researchers at the University of British Columbia as part of a flexible learning initiative wrote Conducting Focus Groups: A Summary of Best Practices & Support Available for UBC’s Flexible Learning Initiative, which provides information about preparing, writing questions, and running a focus group.
- The Community ToolBox from the Center for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas has a module titled Conducting Focus Groups. This resource includes examples, a checklist, and tons of information about conducting a successful focus group.
Did coordinating multiple focus groups make us want to pull our hair out? Sometimes, yes. Did it sometimes feel like we were doing a whole lot of work for few results? Yes, occasionally. Was it worth it in the end? Yes, definitely. Will we do more focus groups in the future? NO! Just kidding, we probably (definitely) will. In the next segment of our series on focus groups, we will discuss some of the low points that we experienced during our research project and how we managed some difficult situations that could have completely thrown us off course, including angry students, recruitment woes, and the reality of time investment.
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