Amplify the voice of your users in one hour!

19 Oct 2023 Leeann Kelly    Last updated: 3 Nov 2023

How focus groups can be used to strengthen your practice

Within the voluntary and community sector, the desire to amplify the voice of users is nothing new.  However, these are tough times, where many services are stretched and often it can feel like funders are largely interested in numbers.  Yet the need to capture the need for and the impact of services has never been more important. Focus groups offer an effective and efficient way to do that. A well deigned focus groups can harness the experience and voices of numerous participants in an hour or less. Focus groups can be held in person or run online.

NICVA partnered with Sonrisa Solutions Ltd to explore how to use focus groups to amplify user voices and to strengthen practice. This short article summarises the key learning from that half day workshop.

Focus groups were characterised as an effective way:

  • To engage users
  • To strengthen service delivery
  • To enable co-production
  • To carry out project evaluation

Focus groups typically take 45 minutes to one hour to complete.  When carried out effectively, they can be used to engage users who may not traditionally engage with surveys.  This may be because of literacy issues, or a language barrier, or there may be a learning difficulty, or they simply may feel like the type of person that is not used to be asked or recognise the value of their experience. 

As human beings, we all have a story to tell and like to share our stories, when the right environment is created.  This is why it is key to effectively plan, be clear of the aim of the focus group and ensure the right people are welcomed into the room.

So, what is a focus group?

  • A guided conversation
  • Where participants with shared characteristics/experiences are brought together
  • Qualitative data is captured
  • The process gives a rich insight into the How? Why? What? questions

In bringing people together, the aim is to learn what a service or experience was like for them.  What was it really like? What else would they have liked to see?  And if there was future support, how could it be improved? 

Designing a focus group

  • Be clear on aim
  • Agree (and practise) questions
  • Ensure consent
  • Option of in-person or online
  • Agree a facilitator and notetaker

Many services users are not used to being treated as an ‘expert’, being asked for advice or being listened to in a genuine and respectful way.  Successful focus groups are dependent on creating an environment where people are supported and encouraged to tell their story.  It is important that users taking part understand the importance that their lived experience can bring to strengthening service delivery. Alongside this, participants should be clear that they will not be disadvantaged in any way by being open about what needs to be improved. 

Focus groups can be used both to evaluate projects, as well as to look to the future and question what else is needed. 

Questions that might be included in a focus group as part of an evaluation include

  • Paint me a picture of what was good about this project/service?
  • What would have made it better?
  • Examples of how it has affected your life?

Questions that could be included in a focus group aimed at future planning

  • What could improve the service/project?
  • Why do you think others do not use the service/project?

When running a focus group

  • Ensure you have a snappy introduction
  • Have a strong opening question (focused on aim)
  • Allow conversation to flow
  • Have 3-6 other questions to guide conversation
  • Use prompts and also do not be afraid of occasional silence
  • Close by inviting feedback from each participant

Managing a focus group can feel like a juggling act- creating a safe space, where people feel like they are valued and encouraging people that their voice and story is important, while subtly guiding the conversation.  Focus groups can feel messy, and you can fear that you are not getting the ‘right information’.  Do not be afraid of moments of silence or pauses in conservation, as they give the group time to reflect.  Yet, it is in these spaces, when you trust in the process, you will learn things that you never would have because you are genuinely creating a space for people with lived experience to amplify their voices and in turn strengthen your service.

The truly daunting part of focus groups can be “what do you do with everything that you have heard?”

After your focus group

  • Take time to debrief (facilitator and notetaker)
  • Take account of the non-verbal in the room
  • Record the key stories, themes and quotations
  • Consider what worked well
  • Consider what you would do differently next time
  • Agree action plan
  • Remember to go back to the people who were involved, thank them for their involvement and if possible tell them ‘you said and as a response we did or intend to do’

Report your findings

You could use the evidence you have found in the focus group in conjunction with statistics to make visible the impact of your service or to advocate for service delivery. 

In reporting, do not be afraid to be creative. The purpose is to amplify the voices of service users. Extracts and quotations from the focus groups could be used with pictures, or a case example to highlight a key theme.

Make asking part of what you do!

Your users have an unique insight into your services, so make asking and valuing their lived experience part of what you do.  Focus groups can be a dynamic and fun way for organisations to amplify the voice of users and strengthen service delivery on a regular basis.

NICVA would like to take the opportunity to thank Una Lynch for delivering this session and sharing her knowledge of how focus groups can help amplify the voice of users. Reflecting on delivering the session with NICVA on focus groups Una commented:

“Having the user experience at the centre of service planning and delivery is vital to a responsive, sustainable, and equitable health and social care sector. The community and voluntary sector is uniquely placed to capture and amplify the voices of some of the most socially excluded people in Northern Ireland. Focus groups are a powerful tool in that endeavour.” (Una Lynch, Sonrisa Solutions)

If you would like further information about effective planning, management and delivery of focus groups with users you can contact Una directly at: [email protected]

Or if you would like further information on the impact support offered by NICVA, please contact Leeann Kelly at: [email protected]'s picture
by Leeann Kelly

Impact Practice Manager

[email protected]

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