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Focus Groups

Background

A focus group is a method of research in which qualitative data is gathered from a small group of people. Usually there will be six to ten people in a focus group, with a moderator who 'runs' the group and asks them a set of predetermined questions on one or a series of different topics. On average a focus group will run for no longer than 2 hours. Focus groups are usually run in conjunction with quantitative methods such as surveys.

The first documented focus group studies were conducted at around the time of World War II. A series of focus groups were conducted in order to gauge the popularity of radio shows, movies or other types of media content 1). Focus groups were also used for different types of social sciences, with sessions conducted for group therapy. In the latter years, focus groups have been used mainly as a tool for marketing and gauging public sentiment.

Preparation

There are some steps that need to be taken before undertaking the focus group physically. Firstly the research group must determine what the aim of the focus group is, for example, what is the information that is desired. Next the timing must be determined. The research group needs to set a realistic time frame for the research to be conducted, which can range anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months.

The next step is to select the participants. The researchers need to be extremely diligent and ensure that they a good cross section of individuals who correctly represent the target group. They will also need to ascertain the number of participants that they require. Once the researchers have a list compiled, invitations will be sent to the desired people, and possibly one or two 'reserves' will also be contacted in case one or more of the original list cannot participate 2).

The choice of venue is also important in the process. It is important that the participants feel comfortable and secure, and it should be an area which offers the least amount of distraction possible. Te location should also have good access and not be inconvenient logistically and also have amenities such as toilets and tea and coffee facilities as a minimum, and also have access to a suitable table and comfortable chairs.

Once the participants have been determined and confirmed, the researchers will need to set about compiling a list of relevant questions. This is an important stage of the preparation, as the quality of the research is only as good as the questions that are asked. The researchers must remain mindful that the questions are relevant, and that they stay on topic. Often they will do a mock session in order to work out how long each question may take. The questions should always be open and lead into further discussions.

The research group will next have to select a moderator for the focus group session. The moderator should be a good communicator and be able to take control of the group if the topic strays or if one or more individuals try and dominate the session. The moderator should be as unbiased and neutral as possible, and the best option is a moderator who does not personally know any of the participants.

On The Day

The moderator and researchers should arrive ahead of time to prepare the venue. The tables and chairs should be set out so that the participants can easily see each other, but not be so far away so that they need to raise their voices. Water, tea and coffee facilities should be set up, and one of the researchers should wait at the entrance in order to greet the participants and also direct them to the correct area.

Other supplies such as pens, pencils, notepads and a watch or clock should be brought to the venue, along with name tags for the focus group and a voice recording device. Most focus groups are voice recorded, and on the odd occasion video recorded with the permission of the participants. The researchers and moderator should ensure that the participants feel as comfortable as possible, as this will lead to a discussion that is more positive.

Once the session has started, the moderator and the researchers who are not involved in the group should take as many notes as possible. The researchers should also ensure that the recording devices are working correctly and that all the correct participants have arrived 3).

After the Event

After the conclusion of the focus group, the researchers need to set about to interpret the data that was collected. The voice or video recordings will need to be transcribed and the raw data categorised. Once this is done, the researchers will need to conduct the qualitative analysis and present the data to the research group in the form of a final report.

Focus groups remain a valuable tool for the collection of data. The focus group can give a far more in-depth analysis of certain issues, and these are issues that would be hard to put into other methods of research such as surveys. The one draw back with focus groups is time. It can take up to six months for any sort of data to get back to the research group so this is a method that needs to be implemented well ahead of time.

Marketing

1) Goss, J D, 1996, 'An Introduction to Focus Groups', Area, vol. 28, no.2, pp113-114
2) Rook, D. W., W Stewart, D. W., & Shamdasani, P. N, 2006, 'Focus Groups: Theory and Practice (2nd edition)', SAGE Publications Inc
3) Powell, R. A., Single, H. M.,1996, 'Focus groups. International Journal for Quality in Health Care', Journal of the International Society for Quality in Health Care, vol.8, no.5, pp.499-504

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