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Are you fantasizing about the day when everything in the library runs as smoothly as possible, there is nothing left to do, and you can sit back and relax with a smile on your face? Time for a new fantasy. In this day and age, change is inevitable. To keep the library’s operations vital and relevant, someone must constantly reassess the resources that are made available, the products and services that are provided, and the role of information professionals. What should be purchased in print and what should be made available in an electronic format? Are intermediaries necessary, or should end users be encouraged to do their own searching? How should information about resources and services be communicated? These and related issues are discussed in the literature, at seminars, and during professional conferences directed at librarians, as well as by librarians whenever they meet. But no matter how informative they are, articles, classes, and discussions with colleagues cannot reveal the best course of action for your organization’s library. That must be determined on a case-by-case basis, by assessing information needs, analyzing how well those needs are being met, and then determining what changes are needed. One of the most effective tools to help with these tasks is the focus group. WHAT THEY ARE Focus groups are a research method that can rapidly produce rich data through group discussions centered on participants’ experiences, reactions, attitudes, and feelings on one or more topics. Unlike single interviews, data are generated by conversations in which individuals compare and discuss their experiences and opinions, under the guidance of a moderator. Focus groups are used to develop an in-depth understanding of how people think and feel. They evoke the big picture as opposed to fine detail. They are particularly powerful tools for professionals who must understand the needs of the people for whom they develop products and services. Focus groups can be used to: � understand the information needs of nonlibrary users; � improve existing library services and products; � assess the effectiveness of a newly implemented product or service; and � identify problems that need to be addressed. One way to think about and understand focus groups is to distinguish them from surveys. Both research methods gather information from people on a defined topic by asking questions. The techniques used and the data generated, however, are quite different. Surveys use closed-ended questions in an effort to gather quantifiable information that can be generalized to a larger population. Focus groups use open-ended questions to encourage discussion of thoughts and attitudes. Surveys have a finite number of questions with a pre-determined selection of responses. Focus groups use a set of carefully prepared questions, but there are no preconceived responses, no right or wrong answers. For example, during a focus group on the use of existing information sources, the moderator might ask: “The library offers a number of services and products, such as … . Of those that you use, are there any that are more important to your work than the others and, if yes, why?” To elicit this information on a survey requires multiple layers of questions. First, all services and products must be listed, with respondents asked to indicate whether or not each is used. To get an importance ranking, each product and service must be listed again, with a ranking scale (unimportant to very important, for example). A survey is not an effective tool for answering why a respondent sees one item as more important than another. In contrast, in a focus group, there is no need to list every product and service the library offers. The participants know what they use, what is important to them, and why. WHEN TO USE THEM Focus groups are often conducted when an organization identifies the need for change but is uncertain of the direction that change should take. This helps to ensure that limited resources — human as well as financial — are well-spent. Focus groups can also be used midstream, to find out how well something is working and if any changes should be made. For example, if the firm is implementing a series of Internet training courses, why wait until they end to find out if they were effective? Finally, focus groups can be conducted to evaluate the success or failure of a project, product, or service that the library has always assumed was valuable, and to identify areas for change. SELECTING THE PARTICIPANTS To obtain statistically meaningful results, survey participants must be selected by random sampling. Focus group participants are selected by a process known as purposeful sampling, which means you sample only those whose opinions you want to include. Start by identifying target populations within your organization. In a typical law firm, the target populations are attorneys, and perhaps legal assistants, from each practice group. Depending on the topic of the focus group, the target populations may also include secretaries and administrative department heads. Next, determine which subsets of each population to include. Subsets of attorneys, for example: partners, associates, laterals, library users, and nonusers. Some of the subsets can be further divided (junior and senior associates, for example). The most important criterion for selecting the individuals to include in each focus group is that they be homogeneous. Group members should have interests in common, feel comfortable with each other, and feel free to openly express their opinions. The goal is to put together people who will generate lively discussions. Some mixing and matching is fine (lateral hires and others, for example), and may even help to stimulate discussion. But it’s best not to mix associates and partners in case junior attorneys feel the need to defer to those who are more senior. Segregation by practice group is also recommended because information needs can vary so significantly. Generally, litigators and transactional lawyers should be in separate groups, but a group of health care and labor litigators could work just fine. Make a list of potential participants within each subset. You should identify more than you will need since some of the invitees will decline due to scheduling conflicts, too much work, or other reasons. Most experts recommend from six to 10 participants per group, and we prefer no more than eight. This is generally enough to ensure an interesting discussion with a variety of viewpoints, but not so many that it is difficult for everyone to express his or her opinion. Determine the number of focus groups you will conduct. The actual number may depend on the size and locations of the target population and the number of subgroups. In general, from five to 10 focus groups is sufficient. A few people should be interviewed on an individual basis rather than as part of a focus group. The managing partner, library partner, and others with library management responsibilities may have unique interests and concerns, and some questions should be directed only to them. WHAT TO ASK AND SAY Before sitting down to draft a list of questions, be sure that clear goals have been established. Each topic addressed during the focus group should relate to a stated goal. For example, if the goal is to evaluate library services, you need to discover when (and why) patrons use the library to answer their information needs and when they go elsewhere. If the firm will be developing a collection development policy, you need to know how researchers select the resources they use, when (and why) they select one medium over another, and other similar topics. The number of topics should be kept to a minimum and should be related. The number of questions is directly related to the complexity of the topic(s). For instance, if you want to know how a particular product or service is perceived and how it can be improved, five questions might be sufficient. On the other hand, if you are conducting an overall information assessment and want to know about the participants’ information needs and usage patterns, as well as how the library and its products and services are perceived and used, eight to 10 questions may be needed. The number and depth of the questions will determine the length of the focus groups. Typically, sessions run from 60 to 90 minutes, which is long enough to investigate the subject but not so long that participants lose interest. In addition, some people will refuse to participate in sessions that require more than 90 minutes. Open the focus group with introductions, if needed, an explanation of why the participants have been asked to give up their valuable time, and a description of how their responses will be used. Specific questions prepared in advance will serve as the moderator’s script. Begin with a general question designed to get people talking. For example, in a focus group centered on an information assessment, the moderator might begin with the following question: “Would you each describe a case (project, etc.) you are working on and what information is critical to its success?” Then the moderator would continue with the remainder of the questions. Finally, toward the end of the session, the moderator should ask one final question designed to sum up and to catch information that may have been missed: “The information you’ve provided today will be used to plan new information products and services to better meet your needs. Do you have any other advice for the library as it plans for the future?” The questions should be open-ended (never ask a yes or no question) and constructed so they are relevant to the participants. For instance, if you are assessing training requirements, it is important to ask senior attorneys about the training needs of those they supervise, but this question would be skipped in a session composed of only very junior attorneys. RUNNING THE GROUP An experienced moderator with good interpersonal skills is essential. It is the moderator’s responsibility to promote discussion and debate among the participants, probing their statements to get more in-depth information. The moderator must also keep the discussion focused if things go off on a tangent; get things moving if the discussion wanes; get the quiet to talk; and keep the talkative from dominating others. Perhaps most important, the moderator must be careful not to influence what is said, not to appear to favor one opinion or one person over another. The discussion should feel unstructured even though it was carefully planned in advance. It is the moderator’s job to probe the statements made by participants to clarify what is being said and to get at the underlying reasons for a person’s beliefs or actions. Without probing, it is easy to draw incorrect or misleading conclusions. For example, you may hear a tale of terrible service, but the speaker fails to mention that he is talking about a single incident that occurred five years ago. Without asking follow-up questions, it would be easy to conclude that this service problem still exists. When a very strong negative or positive opinion is expressed by one individual in the group and others do not respond, it is important to find out if others in the group have had the same experience. Who should moderate your focus groups? Choose the person who you believe will help you learn the most from the focus groups, whether that’s someone from inside the firm or an outside professional. There are some advantages to using the librarian to conduct the focus groups. No outsider will understand the organization and the participants as well as someone who works there. This knowledge will help the librarian develop probing questions. Using in-house staff will also save money. The disadvantages of using in-house staff: Focus group research is both time-consuming and labor-intensive. From the development of a good question structure, to planning and conducting the sessions, to analyzing and reporting the voluminous data, staff must be prepared to devote substantial amounts of time to complete the project. Another consideration is objectivity: moderators must remain objective, which may be difficult when there is a vested interest in the outcome. Additionally, participants may not be as open as they would be with a stranger. And if critical comments are made, it may be difficult for insiders not to react. Tape recording the session, with the participants’ knowledge, is recommended. Even with a tape recorder, it is advisable to take notes — and without a recorder, a note-taker is essential. It is best if someone other than the moderator is available to help with this task. This frees the moderator to concentrate on the discussion. A form printed with the questions makes the note-taking process easier. ANALYZING THE RESULTS At the end of each group, it is a good idea to take some time to think about the discussion, going over your notes to flag the main points and issues. You may also note any quotable quotes that can be included in discussions or reports. At the conclusion of all the groups, organize the comments and identify major and minor themes. For example, perhaps some attorneys complained about the lack of a catalog of resources, another noted that he found out about a new looseleaf service when he overhead a conversation in the elevator, and another was pleased to learn about some new (to her) Internet sites from her focus group colleagues. Now you know that at least some attorneys lack knowledge, or believe that they lack knowledge, about the full range of available resources. The analysis should then move toward understanding why this situation exists and then to possible solutions. Perhaps the organization needs to hire a professional librarian to ensure that the resources are used fully and efficiently. Perhaps the existing catalog, which is only available on one PC in the library, should be mounted on the intranet. Perhaps a series of Internet training classes should be implemented. Most important, apply careful analysis to the data and create a written report with conclusions and recommendations for actions. No tool is perfect. Even with probing, you may not always be sure participants are expressing their own views; they may be influenced by others in the group, by management’s views, or even by a desire to please the moderator. Sometimes, participants will hesitate to say anything that may be perceived as critical in an effort to support the library staff. Although this sentiment is laudable, the result is to skew the results, thus defeating the purpose of the group. Getting seven or eight busy professionals to commit the same hour can be a challenge, especially when that means giving up billable time. You will miss the views of those who dislike this type of activity (there may be significant differences of opinion between those who agree to participate and those who do not) or who have views they do not care to express in front of others. Try to identify people who fall into these categories and arrange for individual interviews. It is important to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of focus groups as a research tool. If you must have hard and fast numbers to justify the addition of products and services, focus groups will not help. Only survey data will reveal that 60 percent of the firm’s attorneys would find it extremely beneficial to have the Web-based version of a resource, or that 70 percent believe the library’s services are “very important” to their work. Focus groups are extremely useful for gaining an understanding of what is not well-understood (e.g., how to increase awareness or value of library products and services, the appropriate role for library staff as end users do more of their own searching) and for getting at the reasons behind situations (e.g., why library usage has declined, and when and why users go elsewhere for information). In our opinion, they are a powerful tool for performing information assessments and for strategic planning. Understanding what it is you need to know will help you decide whether or not focus groups are the best tool for your situation. Joan L. Axelroth is president and Mary Talley is project director of Axelroth & Associates, an information and library management consulting firm serving law firms and businesses located nationwide. Contact them at [email protected]

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