6 lessons from holding virtual focus groups during the COVID-19 pandemic
What happens when you move focus groups from the real world to the virtual? We know that many researchers grappled with a version of this question in the last several months because of the Covid-19 pandemic. On the Leveraging Transparency to Reduce Corruption (LTRC) program, we had to find ways to continue important qualitative research. Here, we share lessons learned from one such experience conducting virtual focus group in Nigeria.
Our research was motivated by LTRC’s previous findings that citizens in Nigeria want more information about government activities to be able to communicate effectively with their representatives. With our partner BudgIT, an organization that analyzes and simplifies government data to make it accessible and engaging for citizens, we wanted the focus group participants—men and women from Nigeria—to answer the following question:
What models of data visualization resonate with citizens and effectively convey information related to government budgetary data in oil-producing states?”
BudgIT was eager to know how it could present complex information about the economic health and choices of states heavily dependent on oil. We wanted the content to be engaging and to motivate citizens to demand better spending from government.
In this piece, we will focus on what we learned during the implementation of the virtual focus groups. What we learned about the answer to the research question itself will be the subject of our second blog post, so stay tuned!
First, we knew that going virtual would introduce a dreaded bias: selection. By nature of being virtual, participants in our focus groups were limited to those who had access to a computer or smartphone and were literate, since we would be showing text on the screen.
As a result, our findings would not be generalizable to the larger population of Nigeria. After consultations with our partner, we determined that our evidence was still valuable to inform data visualizations about budgetary data BudgIT shares on its social media platforms. Thus, though the sample was biased, it still corresponded to the target audience of these posts.
Second, we knew we needed to prepare. We considered which video platform was most widely used among our target population. We ensured the data visualizations would be legible on a small mobile screen. We budgeted to compensate participants for their data costs.
Finally, we focused on recruitment. We divided our sample by gender and age, based on two broad categories — 18 to 35 years old and over 35. Participants also needed to have access to a smartphone or computer at the time of the focus group. Walking the streets and through shopping malls in Lagos, we approached individuals at random to ask if they’d like to participate.
6 key takeaways from our virtual focus groups
While our preparations proved valuable, we still had a lot to learn. After conducting the virtual focus groups, here are six key lessons that emerged:
1. In the planning stage, participants are more responsive on platforms they already use frequently.
While establishing availability to attend the focus groups, many participants did not respond to emails and did not respond to their Google Calendar invites. Participants were best reached by phone call, followed by WhatsApp messages, and then text messages.
2. Responsiveness to follow-up communication was a good predictor of participation.
Some individuals that indicated interest in participating did not join the focus group. Most of the dropouts occurred between initial sign-up for the focus group and the first follow-up communication to confirm availability. There was only one individual out of 16 who, after confirming availability, did not attend. The reasons for dropping out included conflicting schedules and a preference for the stipend to be paid ahead of the focus group instead of after.
3. Participants were comfortable using Zoom, but they needed guidance with some of its features.
Most participants were already familiar with Zoom. Many understood how to log on to Zoom, but some participants, especially those in the over 35 age group, required support with entering their names and activating audio. We spent at least 15 minutes at the beginning of most focus groups helping one or two participants to troubleshoot their audio. The now-familiar refrains of the virtual era rang out: “Try logging off and on again.” “Is your microphone turned on?” “Can you call in from your phone?”
In some cases, the best solution was when a participant asked a younger person in the household to help them. One grandson surrendered the headphones he was using to his grandma so she could hear better during the discussion. Particularly for older participants, this could be avoided in the future by offering a brief set of instructions during the enrollment phase or a tutorial video in advance about how to join a Zoom meeting. We might also ask any participants unfamiliar with Zoom to join 15 minutes early to give ample time for set-up.
4. Unpredictable internet connection was the biggest barrier to successful implementation of the virtual focus groups, but precautions can be taken.
The internet connection was poor in about half of the focus groups. One had to be canceled midway through because we were unable to clearly communicate — it took nearly 45 minutes just to get through the informed consent process! In the others, a few participants had connection issues that prevented them from joining the meeting on time or resulted in frequent drop-offs from the call. In preparation for such issues, we invited more participants than was needed to provide a buffer in the event a participant dropped off the call.
It’s also important to mention that most of the participants were in Lagos State, which has better internet access than many other areas of the country, despite the challenges we faced. Virtual focus groups in very rural parts of Nigeria would be nearly impossible.
5. Participants did not always plan to be in a quiet and private environment during the focus groups.
Many participants joined the focus groups from noisy or chaotic locations that sometimes prevented them from hearing or remaining focused during the discussion. It might also have inhibited some of them from speaking candidly about their opinions.
For example, one man joined the focus group from a city bus and turned on his microphone only to say that he couldn’t speak because it was loud, and he didn’t want to disturb people. In future iterations, participants should be informed multiple times during the recruitment period and in follow-up communication that they will need to be in a quiet and private environment during the duration of the call.
6. A virtual focus group offered a cheaper, safer and more convenient alternative to an in-person focus group.
Despite issues with the internet, holding the focus group via Zoom reduced the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and allowed for participants to conveniently join the focus groups from their respective physical locations.
In a place like Lagos State, where transportation is often difficult due to heavy traffic, meeting virtually eliminated barriers associated with in-person focus groups, such as longer time commitments and transportation costs. It also reduced the risk of late arrivals or participants getting lost in search of a physical location.
Virtual focus groups eliminated the need to spend money on a venue and air and ground transportation. The stipend offered to participants would have been higher if the cost of transportation were to be included. Instead, participants were offered a stipend to cover their internet data usage.
Despite technological challenges, the virtual focus groups produced valuable insights for our partner BudgIT that will inform future data visualizations and graphics depicting government corruption. In addition, we learned that a virtual focus group had many benefits, such as safety, efficiency, and convenience, and we learned about behaviors and preferences of our participants.
With this knowledge, LTRC is further exploring its use of virtual research to help answer our partners’ questions about ways to improve governance in extractives. We hope these lessons prove useful to others who continue to innovate and refine their remote research techniques.