Asynchronous online focus groups for research with people living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and family caregivers: usefulness, acceptability and lessons learned

Shelagh K. Genuis, Westerly Luth, Garnette Weber, Tania Bubela, Wendy S. Johnston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Background: People with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) face disability- and travel-related barriers to research participation. We investigate the usefulness and acceptability of asynchronous, online focus groups (AOFGs) for research involving people affected by ALS (patients and family caregivers) and outline lessons learned. Methods: The ALS Talk Project, consisting of seven AOFGs and 100 participants affected by ALS, provided context for this investigation. Hosted on the secure itracks Board™ platform, participants interacted in a threaded web forum structure. Moderators posted weekly discussion questions and facilitated discussion. Data pertaining to methodology, participant interaction and experience, and moderator technique were analyzed using itracks and NVivo 12 analytics (quantitative) and conventional content analysis and the constant-comparative approach (qualitative). Results: There was active engagement within groups, with post lengths averaging 111.48 words and a complex network of branching interactions between participants. One third of participant responses included individual reflections without further interaction. Participants affirmed their co-group members, offered practical advice, and discussed shared and differing perspectives. Moderators responded to all posts, indicating presence and probing answers. AOFGs facilitated qualitative and quantitative data-gathering and flexible response to unanticipated events. Although total participation fell below 50% after 10–12 weeks, participants valued interacting with peers in an inclusive, confidential forum. Participants used a variety of personal devices, browsers, and operating systems when interacting on the online platform. Conclusions: This methodological examination of AOFGs for patient-centred investigations involving people affected by ALS demonstrates their usefulness and acceptability, and advances knowledge of online research methodologies. Lessons learned include: early identification of research goals and participant needs is critical to selecting an AOFG platform; although duration longer than 10–12 weeks may be burdensome in this population, participants were positive about AOFGs; AOFGs offer real world flexibility enabling response to research challenges and opportunities; and, AOGFs can effectively foster safe spaces for sharing personal perspectives and discussing sensitive topics. With moderators playing an important role in fostering engagement, AOFGs facilitated rich data gathering and promoted reciprocity by fostering the exchange of ideas and interaction between peers. Findings may have implications for research involving other neurologically impaired and/or medically vulnerable populations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number222
JournalBMC Medical Research Methodology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  • Family caregivers
  • Online focus groups
  • Patients
  • Research design
  • Research participation


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