Holding a focus groups session is ideal to generate a large amount of data and when recorded correctly can provide a great deal of detailed information and insight for qualitative research purposes.  Recording the dialogue of a focus group session is essential to capturing all the content which may prove useful and valuable at a later date.  They can be difficult to record well – getting audio that is clean and all voices heard clearly and evenly can prove quite a challenge, even for skilled interviewers.  To ensure you don’t end up with a recording that is inaudible or cannot be transcribed, here is a guide to setting up the session and capturing quality audio.

Consider your environment

There is more to consider when choosing the place to conduct your focus group session than if there are enough chairs for all the participants.  Background noise is one of the main elements that can affect the quality and clarity of your audio.  Microphones in digital recording equipment can pick up the faintest sounds from the traffic flowing outside a window, air conditioners or fans, even people moving around or shuffling their papers.

Choose a location to host the focus group session which is relatively closed off from external sound.  Sound proofed recording rooms are ideal, but if you haven’t the access to such a location then consider a quiet, private room with limited windows opening to a street and with little noise from adjoining rooms or hallways. Sound reflects off hard surfaces, so try to set your interview up in a space with soft surfaces such as rugs, curtains or upholstered furniture. If the venue is of a large scale, set up your recording in a corner or sectioned off area to minimise any echo.

Prepare your microphone setup

Set up the session where all participants are sitting close enough to the recording equipment so that even those who speak softly are heard clearly. An external microphone that will pick up all participants should be used for larger groups. If your recording device or external microphones are sitting on the surface of a table, consider putting cloth under each piece of equipment to reduce any interference caused by audio reverberation or accidental table movement.  Placing the recorder on a tripod can also reduce interference.

Ensure that microphones, when shared by participants, are evenly spaced and within reach of all speakers. Investing in lapel microphones is a great way to ensure that all voices are recorded clearly especially if you have limited lectern microphones compared to participants.  Alternatively, boundary microphones are far less intrusive to those speaking and a single device can be used for small group situations capturing the sounds from all sides.  The only down side is that they can pick up an ambient sounds within the room which may affect the end result.

Where you are using multiple microphones, ensure you follow the 3:1 distance rule where the distance between microphones should be three times the distance between the microphone and the sound source.  In this situation, it is worth considering a microphone mixer to deactivate microphones that are silent in-between speaking and only activate the ones that are in use.  This aids to minimise ambient sounds including the movement of a participant or side conversations. In situations where you only have access to a single recorder then always place it closer to your respondents – the answers are the most important information you need to capture, not the questions.  Many interviewers make the mistake of placing the recorder closer to themselves, rather than the focus group participants.

A good device can ensure great audio

There are a wide range of great recording devices on the market suitable for various situations that have improved immensely from the days of the old cassette recorder. Digital voice recorders are an ideal way to generate high quality audio files with several features making recording and transcribing easily and more efficient.  If you are considering a digital device for recording focus groups, here are a few key things to look out for:

  1. Recording format
    Check that the audio formats are compatible with your computer and your transcription service. MP3, MP4, WMA are good output files as they are smaller and provide good clarity. DSS and DS2 files are generally poorer audio files for transcription unless the transcribers use the propriety software and equipment required to transcribe them. If your recorder has this output you should change your setting to the more commonly accepted MP3 or WMA. Large audio files such as WAV files take much longer to upload the audio as they are generally 4-5 times the size of an MP3.
  2. Sound quality

Ensure that the device has noise cancellation and voice filter functions particularly if you are recording in noisier spaces.

  1. Power

Consider whether the battery life will suffice and what flexibility the device offers in regards to power sources.

  1. Microphone options

Ensure you can enable external microphones when required and take into consideration the internal microphone function so that you can record under various conditions.

It’s a good idea to run a test recording in your chosen venue prior to the focus group session so that you can confirm the space is suitable, identify any background noises and the spacing of the microphones to ensure you have limited issues with your recording clarity.

The role of the moderator or facilitator

The role of the moderator or focus group facilitator should not be underestimated, and can be the difference between achieving or failing to meet the research objectives. The moderator should:

  1. Discuss the scope and/or objective of the focus group, and clearly define the respondents or participants role.  The moderator should also ask the respondents to sit as still as possible, to not shuffle paper, to speak concisely and clearly (definitely no eating and talking at the same time), and don’t talk over each other! This preliminary information should be provided before the recorder is switched on.
  2. Ask only relevant questions that are easily understood by all participants
  3. Steer the focus group and keep it relevant – when people are given the opportunity to talk freely, they can quickly go off track.
  4. Be wary of a dominant respondent(s). Ensure that all participants are given equal opportunity to have their say.  Everyone’s answers are important.
  5. Ask all participants to say their name as part of the introduction. It is nigh on impossible for transcribers to identify more than four speakers, and if they are all the one gender, or the audio is poor, then it is even harder, and may be impossible.  The transcriber’s role is to capture what is said and not necessarily concentrate on who said what.  To ensure speaker identification then each participant must either state their name before speaking, or use video recordings where all speakers are introduced at the start and are clearly visible to the transcriber.  MP4 (video) recordings are ideal.


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