Considerations for Design of Virtual Focus Groups

Author: Jennifer L. Harrison, Ph.D., LP  Solutions IRB Reviewer and Board Member

Given that focus groups can increase the risk for participants, researchers should carefully consider whether this is an appropriate research method for the information that will be obtained from them. One such risk is that the researcher does not have the ability to ensure confidentiality of the information that is discussed within the group. This is primarily because once participants leave the group and the study, they are on their own and they can share any information they so choose with anyone. For this reason, researchers must inform participants of this risk, and attempt to mitigate this to the extent possible by asking participants to respect others’ privacy by keeping information discussed within the group confidential.

Focus Group Consent

Obtaining informed consent to participate in a virtual focus group should occur on an individualized basis so that the individual can take the appropriate time to review the information, ask any questions they may have, and ultimately provide consent after making an informed decision. Consent cannot be obtained in a group setting as this does not provide each individual with the appropriate attention needed to ensure they individually understand the information that has been presented to them, they are less likely to ask questions in a group setting, they are essentially put “on the spot” to provide their answer in front of others, they may be rushed to make a decision, and they are more likely to engage in groupthink – meaning, a desire for agreement or harmony in a group setting results in individuals disregarding their own judgment and critical thinking from pressure to conform. Such a group setting can actually be considered coercive in nature for obtaining consent for these aforementioned reasons. To obtain consent, it is possible to ask participants to click a box in an online form where they agree to a statement, such as, “By clicking this box, I agree that I have read and understand the above information and I agree to participate in the study.”

Recording a Focus Group

Recording a focus group, whether audio and/or video, can present even more risks to participants depending on the data that will be collected. For example, if a researcher is interested in understanding substance use behaviors and patterns in more detail, information obtained will in essence be an identifiable, recorded admission of guilt that could be used against them and potentially have negative consequences for the participant (e.g., loss of employment, criminal charges from law enforcement) – as many substances remain illegal in the US. For these reasons, careful consideration should be afforded to the design process to determine if recording can be avoided in order to better protect participants. If the information collected is sensitive in nature, such as the above example, researchers should consider obtaining a certificate of confidentiality from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). If a recording can be avoided and the researcher can instead take notes, this is preferable given the risks of the potential for a breach of confidentiality of the information. In addition, it is also possible to request a waiver of documentation of consent if there is a possibility of harm to a participant due to a breach of confidentiality – so that participants’ names are not identified on consent forms in order to further protect their identity.

Seeking consent to record a focus group also needs to occur on an individualized basis and during the informed consent process. Participants should be clearly informed in the informed consent process that they will be recorded, via the specific method (i.e., audio and/or video recording), and if the participant chooses to decline to be recorded – whether or not they can still participate in the study. Just prior to notating consent for participation in the study at the bottom of the form, participants should be asked to provide their consent for recording – and this is the only occasion that this information needs to be covered – in other words, permission to record should not be asked again at the commencement of the focus group. Doing so can actually be considered coercive – because if a participant declines to be recorded and is asked again at the start of the focus group – they may be pressured to say yes when they have already declined.