Technology Assessment has a large toolbox of methods involving a range of different actors. The CIPAST-project (Citizen Participation in Science and Technology), which ended in 2008, described many of them, particularly those involving citizens. The focus group was one of the methods presented.
A focus group is a structured group interview, first used in the United States in the 1980s by sociologist Robert Merton. A group is composed of participants who have specific knowledge or experience of the topic at hand. This could be ‘teenagers who use smart phones’, or ‘parents of children with asthma’ or ‘workers at a car factory’.
The scope of a focus group is limited and defined in advance by the researcher. They follow a semi-structured interview format, where the researcher asks prompting questions. However, it is important that the discussions are open, so that the participants can share their experiences and comment on each other’s views. This is the strength of this method: the discussions and interaction between the participants produces more information than the participants would provide one by one.
Another advantage of the focus group is that it allows the researcher to document the processes whereby group meanings are shaped, elaborated and applied, by letting the participants discuss and share with each other. As the participants are selected based on their own experiences, the focus group is an effective method for providing information on attitudes, values and societal norms – for example what teenagers think about privacy issues related to their own smart phone use.
Several institutions in the field of technology assessment have used focus groups in their projects. In 2010 the Norwegian Board of Technology (NBT)’s Patient 2.0 project was trying to ascertain what people with chronic illnesses thought about online health services. Recruitment for the group was done in cooperation with some of the largest patient organizations in Norway with a total of 21 patients participating.
“The focus groups provided important insights on what kind of services the patients needed, what they expected from the care services and their experiences with already implemented online solutions”, according to NBT project manager Jon Fixdal.
Drawing on their own experiences with the health care system, patients wanted the possibility to add information about their daily condition into their patient journal, so that it could be discussed with their doctor later. Another recommendation was to establish an online health portal, for finding quality assured health information.
Fixdal highlights another aspect of the focus groups – the fact that it is well suited for multi-method projects. In Patient 2.0, focus groups were held together with an expert group. Both methods proved valuable and the recommendations produced for the decision-makers were listened to. Getting expert opinions from research and industry, but also user experience from patients, was welcomed by parliamentarians.
CIPAST – Citizen participation in science and technology