An experimental virtual focus group process, developed at the Trecker Library, proved to be a success resulting in six campus students, three graduates and three undergraduates, providing almost 100 detailed comments concerning library spaces and services.

Responses covered a number of topics which will be made part of planning sessions for the 2011-2012 academic year.  Suggestions for service improvements were made for 1.  The building;  2.  Copying, faxing and printing;  3. Furnishings;   4.  Group and Quiet Study Rooms;  5.  Hours;  6. Marketing and increasing library usage; 7. Printed and electronic resources; and  8. Technology.

The virtual focus group concept developed from an effort to host an in-person session with volunteer attendees.  Respondents to the initial survey were asked to indicate interest in participating in a subsequent meeting.  Twelve of the original fifty-four respondents said they were willing to do so, but efforts to gather even a subset of that number of busy people in one place at one time proved fruitless.

Instead of working with two or three members of the campus community, a library staff member used online blog software to develop an experimental “virtual” focus group.  In a nutshell, eight questions were to be posted on a specially designed blog and respondents would be invited to comment on either the questions or on the comments of others.

Six of the twelve agreed to participate and over a three week span provided some 90 useful comments and ideas, vastly extending the library’s depth of knowledge of issues to be addressed in future planning/funding cycles.  The large number of comments compared very favorably to the 12 somewhat general statements received as part of the original survey instrument.

At the conclusion of the virtual focus group,  “themes” (similar remarks from more than one respondent) within each of the categories noted above were identified.  For example, several respondents felt that students, as well as the library, would benefit from an expansion of orientation sessions to include all new students, not just incoming freshmen, as part of Trecker marketing efforts.  Library staff will now investigate the feasibility of implementing this, and a number of other very interesting suggested service improvements, in the months ahead.

Regarding the virtual focus group process itself, five of the six students who participated indicated that they found it preferable to in-person focus groups.  The one person preferring the in-person approach still rated it eight on a scale of nine for its value.  All six found the process easy to use and one commented that “I enjoyed the virtual medium so much, it gave me time to think about my answers and give good responses. I would love to answer more questions online”.

We are grateful to the six students who took time to participate.   We gained a large amount of valuable information which helps provide context to the numbers resulting from the online survey.  And we may have also discovered a relatively painless and yet productive way to inform our future planning efforts.

Bill Uricchio, Library Director