by Susan Coan and Jenny Woodward
Focus groups are a staple of qualitative research but sometimes it feels like you’re going through the motions with each group without really getting to the bottom of the issues they want to cover or experiences they want to share. The groups can be easily dominated by strong characters and we don’t hear from the introverts, or one main bugbear can drown out other points as it is at the forefront of people’s minds. As researchers, we’re conscious that participants are giving up their time to speak to us so we often dive in without too much warm up to try to get as much from the hour as we can.
When we were asked to evaluate the creative programmes at Hive (a community arts centre that offers arts and crafts courses for people with mental health problems) and collect participant/volunteer perspectives on their work, we wanted to do things a little differently. As it’s a creative environment, it felt like the ideal opportunity to experiment with more creative research methods and after speaking to colleagues, we decided to open the focus groups with story boards.
The first challenge was to get hold of a huge pile of varied magazine for our participants to use to tell their stories. A call out to university staff meant that we had a lot of material to work with – the mountaineering mags went down a storm, but we had to be a bit more selective about what we included from the slightly more scandalous magazines!
When we arrived at the arts centre, volunteers and service users who had agreed to take part were brought to a room with a large table where we laid out the A3 paper, magazines, glue and pens. We explained who we were and what we wanted them to do:
Using photos and images from old magazines and newspapers the participants are encouraged to cut out pictures and stick them on a large piece of paper (or they may prefer to draw/write) which is divided into three sections under three separate headings:
– Where I was (before getting involved at Hive)
– Where I am now
– Where I hope to be
In each section they can stick pictures/images which say/represent something about each phase under each heading. The boards are an opportunity for participants to reflect individually on if/how being involved at Hive has affected their life and will serve as talking points and additional prompts during the discussion section of the focus group.
With permission, photographs will be taken of the boards so that they can be included in the analysis of the focus group.
The participants really threw themselves into the activity and seemed to enjoy finding the right picture to share their experiences. They adapted pictures where necessary and also included interesting metaphors. It was a really personal process where everyone could take some time to reflect on things that had happened to them and the role Hive played in their life.
We spoke to people one to one while they were making their boards and people explained different pictures and what they represented. This helped us to guide the focus group discussion later and also gave context for the story boards which we photographed at the end of the session. When we began the discussion, the participants were really warmed up and, in most cases, keen to share their reflections.
From the researcher point of view, we find that we remember that group much more clearly than others which may be connected to the use of visual methods, and we have the story boards themselves to keep as a memory prompt. We also had the context of the conversations around the story boards before we spoke as a group which helped us to warm up too.
To sum up, using story boards was good fun for participants and researchers alike and resulted in some really rich data and thoughtful reflections. When using creative methods, it’s important to choose methods in keeping with the groups, topics, and environment that are being researched. In this case, it was a perfect fit for the group at the arts centre and gave us all time and space to reflect before diving in to the focus group discussion.