How to plan your session
You need to understand why you're holding a focus group and what you hope to get from the session.
Is it to establish which of three possible logos best suits your new branding? Are you testing the usability of your new website before it goes live? Maybe you have different ideas for some marketing materials and want to see which format works best?
Whatever the purpose, explain this clearly to the group's participants.
Similarly, who's your target audience? If you're testing the effectiveness of an advert, involve a group that represents your target market. Don't use people just because they're available! Instead, understand your target market and recruit only from that demographic.
You may need to incentivise people to get them to attend. Why should they give up their time for no reward? As a minimum, pay travel expenses and have free refreshments available.
Aim to involve 6 – 10 people in your group; any fewer and you may struggle to generate sufficient interaction to produce a meaningful outcome; any more and it could be difficult to direct the group's attention properly.
Use people's time wisely, so plan for the session to last for no more than an hour.
Make people comfortable when they arrive – have tea and coffee available, make sure the room is well-heated / well-ventilated (depending on the weather) and ensure toilet facilities are nearby.
Different ways to arrange the session
Depending on what you're trying to achieve, there are different ways to run your focus group.
If people have been brought together to provide feedback on a new brand identity, run a group session where you encourage open debate. This increases the likelihood that people will develop richer, more cohesive ideas than they would've come up with independently.
With something like a brand identity – where there isn't really a "right answer" – encourage people to contribute all ideas and be open-minded to what they say.
If the purpose of your focus group is to test your website's usability, you could run things differently. Perhaps a series of activities which require attendees to complete certain tasks will give you the most meaningful outcome.
It's useful to see how many people get the right answers but the greater benefit comes from observing how each participant tries to find the right answer.
Types of questions
Focus groups are an opportunity for you to gather qualitative feedback, so use "Why…?" questions where appropriate.
But avoid steering people's answers by asking loaded questions such as "Why do you think logo A represents ‘movement‘ better than logo B?".
Running the session
The first time you run your focus group should not be the first time! Dry-run your group beforehand with willing colleagues to test that your questions are well-formed and relevant.
Iron out any teething problems during the dry-run to increase the chances of your real focus group working well.
At focus groups, people often feel obliged to give feedback – they want to justify their invitation by saying something. Reassure participants that if they don't form an opinion on something, it's better to say nothing than offer an extreme view because they think that they must say something.
Be wary of the possibility that one or two dominant members of the group can strongly influence the overall consensus of opinion. This would mean that the feedback you gather does not necessarily reflect how everyone feels.
And while you have available a group of people from your target market, use the opportunity to get them to prioritise the group's responses. If their earlier discussion identified 10 new ideas or issues, can you finish the session with a clearer understanding of which of these are most important?
Finishing the session
Thank people for their time and explain how you will use their contributions.
Make sure all practicalities such as travel expenses are dealt with there and then, so participants are not left needing to chase these up over the following weeks.
Using your findings
Feedback from a focus group is not gospel! Even if a group has dismissed your design for a DL leaflet in favour of an A5 flyer, you're not obliged to agree.
If, having considered the feedback, you can justify your decision to proceed differently, that's fine. After all, your commitment to your focus group was to listen to their views, not necessarily to implement their suggestions
But proceed cautiously. Good design is a matter of opinion not fact and if the opinion of your target market favours the A5 flyer (even if you don't) sometimes you just have to accept it! Anyway, if you ran your group well, you will have established why they prefer one format to the other, which gives you something to consider in future design projects as well as improving the effectiveness of this one.