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Digital Dialogues: Gathering Youth Feedback through Virtual Focus Groups

In a recent project we had the opportunity to facilitate some virtual focus groups with children and youth. We were testing a service provision prototype created by a working group to improve the delivery of mental health services in their community. The prototype was created with end users in mind, and now was our chance to test it out and seek their feedback; we were excited! Past experiences facilitating youth focus groups had been energizing and insightful. We were eager to learn what they thought of the prototype as they tend to offer creative ideas and perspectives that adults might not consider.

As expected, they did end up sharing insightful feedback regarding the prototype, but they also highlighted a key takeaway for facilitating online groups with young people: be prepared for multiple methods of communication and lean in to how participants are engaging.

We had expected that some participants would have their camera on during the conversation, but what we weren't expecting was how many participants would only share their ideas and comments using the chat function. With this in mind, we needed to be nimble and shift the conversation to equally include all verbal, written and even emoji use feedback. Leaning into this multi-method conversation was actually very helpful in eliciting feedback from the entire group. When verbal feedback was limited or people didn’t feel comfortable coming off mute to answer a particular question, we encouraged them to use the chat. Other times we made use of virtual opportunities and asked them for example to “put a thumbs up in the chat if you agree with that point”. This meant that we were hearing from all group members, rather than just those with the loudest voice as can be the case in in-person groups.

With these lessons in mind, would we do virtual focus groups again with youth given the opportunity? As the facilitator, I definitely missed that in-person energy that young people bring to a physical environment, and that would still be my preference. The virtual option, however, may have provided the opportunity for youth that faced barriers to make important contributions, for example those with travel barriers or those that may not feel comfortable sharing in-person given the sensitive nature of the topic. Most importantly though, we would facilitate virtual focus groups again because they were a success! Participants reinforced some of our concepts and provided insightful dialogue to strengthen the prototype and the bonus was that we learned a little more about what to expect next time.

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