The word "FOCUS" in lights, slightly blurry
LibParlor Contributor Series

Focus Groups: “In The End, It Was Worth It.”, A Librarian Parlor Series, Part III

LibParlor Contributors Kristina Clement and Samantha Cook wrap up their series with why their focus groups were worth it.

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 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 or via twitter @Sammy_Librarian.

This is the third 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 Part 2, we explored the specific challenges we encountered while trying to conduct focus groups for library research. In this post, we explain our silver-linings while we conducted focus groups that made the whole messy process worth it.

How Did We Never Think of That?

Throughout our experiences with focus groups, we rarely encountered a group where a participant did not say something that made us sit up and take notice. There were even a few moments where the little light bulb in our heads went off and we were almost dumbstruck by the most simple things we had never considered. For example, in a focus group about our library’s website, a student mentioned that putting a librarian profile on the right side of the page reminded them of the ads you see on Facebook. Because of this, they never really looked at them because they had trained themselves to ignore that part of the page. That comment really blew our minds because it had never occurred to us that students would perceive the layout in that way. Comments like that were immediately actionable because we were the ones who had the power to make changes to the research guides that had profiles on the right side of the page. These seemingly small comments about things that we had never even considered helped us more than we could imagine. Because these realizations were not part of our intended line of questions, these moments helped us find the energy and inspiration to finish our research. 

A Friendly Face

Another good reason to conduct focus groups is to connect with our students and directly learn about the wants and needs of the population we serve. Additionally, this helped us to develop more personal relationships with students who were in our liaison areas. We have all experienced students who are uncomfortable with asking for help with librarians, but after the focus groups, we had multiple students reach out to us with questions that we believe they might not have otherwise asked.

Two Birds, One Stone

Focus groups are an excellent way to contribute to the field while also making a direct impact on your institution. The problems we face at our institution and the questions we want to be answered about our users’ needs are often the same questions that other institutions have. It is helpful to read an article and discover that another institution conducted a focus group about a similar issue you may have and learn how they addressed their issues. While we may not all be required to contribute to the research as part of our jobs, we all can bring unique perspectives and experiences to the discussion and it can be just as important to hear them. For example, we recently heard a community college director advocating for other community college librarians to participate in research, even if it is not required because their experiences and solutions to problems are valuable. 

Big Lessons Learned

“We can assume all day long, but we will never really know until we ask and observe.”

In previous posts, we may have made the claim that we would never, ever do this again, but let’s be honest, we will. Here are some of the big lessons we learned from using focus groups to conduct library research.

  • Don’t shy away from a particular research method because it didn’t work in the past or because it seems difficult. If you put in the time and effort, you’ll get worthwhile results (even if it does cost you some blood, sweat, and tears). This doesn’t just apply to focus groups. 
  • Don’t go it totally alone. Even trying to schedule a few focus groups and recruit participants can be a lot of work and take a lot of time. Having a research partner or two (or three or four) can help distribute the workload and make it a smoother process overall. 
  • The best way to understand your users is to ask them directly about what they do and how they do it. This is why focus groups are so useful in discovering what our users actually need. We can assume all day long, but we will never really know until we ask and observe. Plan, plan, plan and then plan some more. And frankly, this goes for just about any research. The more detailed plan you can come up with at the beginning, the more likely you are to feel confident about the work you are doing. But, as we mentioned in Part 2 of our series, sometimes the plan fails and you just have to run with it. So while we think it’s really important to plan, we also think it’s equally important to be flexible about the plan.

We learned a lot about conducting library research throughout our major project that used focus groups as our primary data collection source, but the biggest thing we learned is that no matter how successful your research is, or how badly it may fail if you can learn even just one useful thing then it was all worth it.

Featured image by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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