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.
This is the second post in a three-part series about best practices and overcoming frustration for conducting focus groups for library research. In Part 1, we discussed four major myths related to focus groups and the realities we discovered, along with helpful resources. In this post, we will explore the specific challenges we encountered while trying to conduct focus groups for library research.
We talked in the first post about how many people you actually need to recruit for library-related focus groups (3-6 people) as opposed to what other industry standards say (6-12 people). You may be thinking, 3-6 people–no problem! In reality, it can be quite difficult to get even just two people to show up. We were fortunate enough to secure enough funding to offer participants incentives to attend, but that might not always be an option. Some things to consider when trying to recruit for focus groups:
- Minimum Attendance: what is the absolute minimum number of people you need to host a focus group? We decided that if at least two people showed up to our scheduled focus groups that we would go ahead and host it. We figured that two people could bounce ideas off one another and it wouldn’t feel like an on-the-spot interview. Fortunately, we were never in a situation where only one person showed up, but we did put a policy in place should that have happened: we agreed that if we had to cancel a focus group because we did not get the minimum needed, we would still give that person their earned incentive and the option to answer questions on their own time via email. Additionally, we also agreed that if we had less than three people show up, we would repeat that focus group at a later date to try and gather more data.
- Incentives: Another consideration we had was what kind of incentives we should give participants to show up. Our research focused on students (both undergraduate and graduate), so we had to think about what students would value most. We decided that the students at our institution would respond well to gift cards and food. And, as mentioned before, we managed to secure funding from our administration to purchase incentives for students. It never hurts to ask for funding for your research. But, if you can’t get any funds, think about what you might be able to acquire for free that might attract student participation.
- Advertising: Knowing how and when to reach potential participants can be difficult. Once we had secured our funding for incentives, we started a relatively simple advertising campaign that consisted of two methods: (1) table tents in the library inviting students to share their opinion of the libraries with a link to an interest form. The table tents advertised the incentives prominently; and (2) we posted the same table tent graphic in the student announcements that were distributed to students once a week. As a result, we had more than 100 students fill out the interest form which let us invite qualified participants to the scheduled focus group times.
Facilitating Off-Topic Conversations
Another challenge we did not initially consider was how to manage off-topic thoughts and conversations. Students can be extremely opinionated about their program of study, the library, and other unrelated things, and they might bring those off-topic conversations into the middle of your very well-planned planned focus group. We encountered a difficult situation with a graduate student focus group: all the students that attended used the focus group platform to air their grievances about the university and program-related things and unfortunately, the discussion never managed to get away from these negative things. We ended up having ZERO library-related data we could use from the focus group because the students were so off-topic. You may face angry students, students who refuse to move on from a subject, students who do not let anyone else talk, students who know nothing about the subject but showed up for the incentives only, and many more! Here are a few ways to manage off-topic students.
- Prepare: Have a set of alternative questions you can ask that are related to your original question. This can help to guide the conversation back to your original topic. It is best to have prepared questions because you do not want to accidentally lead the students to an answer. Instead, by planning out some alternative questions you can attempt to guide the conversation back to what you came here to learn.
- Tolerance for error: Understand that there may be whole sessions or a portion of sessions that you cannot use for the research. It is okay to skip questions if needed or end the group early if you can tell the students are definitely not going to stay on track (like our graduate focus group). Instead, you can listen to what they have to say and then offer to answer any questions they may have about the library and then work to schedule another focus group with a different group of students.
- Be a leader: If you have a student who refuses to talk or will not let other students talk, you can be direct in asking quiet students what they think or telling the talkative student to let others have a chance to share their thoughts. It is important that you make everyone in the room feel like they can participate. By being a leader and taking charge of the group you can help some students feel more comfortable with being involved.
This section got a little dark, but what kept us going when we faced students who tested us was the knowledge that we were always learning something new, something that turned on a mental light and left us wondering “how had we never thought of this before?”
Useful (and Not Useful) Data
As we discussed in the previous section, sometimes you may not get any relevant data from a group. This is common and you are not alone because focus groups are HARD. We also felt pressure to constantly collect more data because we were never sure if we had enough. After we had completed successful focus groups for all of our targeted demographics, we still felt the need to keep going. Here are some things to consider when thinking about data woes.
- Make a plan: At the beginning of your research make a plan about exactly how much data you think you will need to feel successful. When we conducted our focus groups we never decided exactly what focus groups we needed to complete, but instead, we decided we would just see how it went along the way. This left us feeling like we needed to do more because we had not made a clear decision. If we could do one thing over, we would make a plan for exactly how many focus groups we needed for the research to be successful.
- If the plan fails, run with it: Understand that you will sometimes need to run a focus group more than once to get the information. Allow yourself room for error with data and understand that sometimes research does not go exactly to plan.
- There is such a thing as too much data: It is important when completing focus groups to not gather so much data that you cannot possibly analyze and code it in a timely manner. When thinking about your research from the beginning, find a happy medium between too much and not enough. This will allow you to be able to code and publish or present the research while the project is still fresh in your memory.
The biggest thing we did not consider from the start was how long it would realistically take to conduct all our focus groups. When we were planning our research and looking at our schedule, we allocated about three weeks for the focus groups because we thought we would be able to get them all recruited, scheduled, and completed quickly. Boy, were we wrong! It actually took us six months to successfully complete all our focus groups. Here are the two major takeaways we learned about our time investment.
- Deadlines are Motivators: We had some ideas about when we wanted to finish collecting our data, but we did not have any real deadlines that would have pushed us to schedule and complete our focus groups quickly. It would have helped immensely if we had planned a little better and either found a conference or publication deadline (or even an internal deadline, such as a report to a committee or to administration) that we could have used as motivation to get things completed. Next time, we will take that into consideration prior to starting our research.
- Life Happens: Since we didn’t have a clear deadline, life and other work got in the way, the semester ended, and students went home for break and we found ourselves unable to get our last few groups scheduled. Initially, it was frustrating to have our project half-completed, but in the end, we decided to roll with it and make the best of the situation. In the end, we finally finished and have moved on to analyzing our results (though, who knows how long that will take…).
We hit some low points during our focus groups that really made us question why we were doing this. There were times when we really wanted to scrap the project, or at the very least call it good with the few focus groups that we had managed to pull off. There were also times where we could hardly bring ourselves to schedule the next focus group because the previous one was so demotivating. And, of course, there were times when we felt we needed to do even more because more data is better…right? But, in the end, we persevered because we knew the data we gathered would be helpful in improving our library services and potentially could help others and that is what research is all about.
In the next and last installment of our focus group series, we will explore the reasons why this research project was totally worth it and how the highs definitely outweigh the lows. Also, for more information and useful resources about conducting focus groups for library research, see our first post in this series.
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