Making the Nominal Group Technique more accessible

By Jason Olsen

Jason Olsen (biography)

Looking to gain real insights from those with lived experience about a specific topic? Interested in a low-cost method that fosters equal participation and discussion over participant domination in a research focus group? Want to know about modifications to make pan-disability (ie., working with participants with different impairments) research focus groups more inclusive?

The Nominal Group Technique developed by Ven and Delbecq (1972) has been used for more than 50 years. Key to its success is the posing of a single unambiguous and unbiased question about a problem that can generate a wide range of answers. The process structures the meeting to enable critical dimensions of the question to be identified, ranked and rated in a way that:

  • limits the influence of the researcher leading the project, as well as the influence of attendees,
  • allows participants to clarify the question’s dimensions and gaps,
  • increases the likelihood of equal participation for all group members,
  • affords equal influence to different, and potentially conflicting, values and ideas.

The Nominal Group Technique ideally involves 4-9 participants, with four essential steps:

  1. Silent generation of ideas by each individual, where each person writes down their ideas in response to the focal question. This requires adequate time for thinking and reflection.
  2. Round-robin recording of ideas, where each group member in turn presents one idea (without being interrupted, or responded to, by other participants) which is recorded. This continues, with participants presenting additional ideas (including new ideas generated in response to other ideas) one at a time, until all ideas are recorded.
  3. Structured and time-limited discussion of ideas, with the focus on ensuring that everyone understands each idea.
  4. Selection and ranking of ideas by voting, which can involve preliminary voting followed by further clarification, followed by final voting. Such ranking often determines priorities for action.

The process is readily adaptable for pan-disability groups and here I share my experience in running a Nominal Group Technique with a group of 9 people each with one or more of cognitive, psychological, sensory, and physical impairments. The focus question was: “What are the top five things affecting disabled people getting jobs in Northern Ireland?” (Olsen, 2019).

The modifications to the typical Nominal Group Technique steps included:

  • A pre-step of sharing the aims with the participants prior to their attendance. This allowed them to begin to think about their contributions, ask for clarifications in private, and ensure that they had requested reasonable adjustments for the process itself, including interpreters and provision of materials on personal assistive devices.
  • The researcher was flexible by being prepared to help participants as needed, for example acting as a scribe for a participant who was visually impaired, and assisting and reassuring a participant with a cognitive disability.
  • Conducting the round-robin in writing. Each participant had previously ranked their suggestions from 1-5, with compilation involving circulating a sheet on which each participant wrote their first-ranked suggestion, another sheet on which each wrote their second-ranked suggestion and so on. This allowed the researcher to move away from the facilitation role and assist participants as needed. Further, it protected anonymity, as no-one was required to express their idea verbally and it also allowed everyone to take as much time as they needed.
  • The discussion portion (in step 3) still occurred but the final voting was replaced with a discussion. This was done to ensure that each compilation of suggestions was categorised appropriately. Through this open discussion a consensus was garnered on the priority of the issues identified.
  • The consensus topics were then evaluated to determine how far opinions had changed from the original data reported by participants. This provided an opportunity to review and assess critical issues which resulted in changes to rankings.

More generally, conducting a Nominal Group Technique with a pan-disability group requires:

  • confirming any additional spatial requirements for those with mobility equipment,
  • having an accessible location large enough for all participants,
  • allocating specific space for interpreting services,
  • making entrances and exits barrier free,
  • providing a description of where emergency egress is located,
  • arranging accessible parking for standard and modified vehicles,
  • ensuring that the amount of noise at the location is not distracting to those with cognitive disabilities or interfering with the audiological equipment of those who are deaf/ hard of hearing,
  • confirming accessible toilets are present,
  • making accessible materials available for digital download onto participants’ electronic devices,
  • giving verbal descriptions of content located on the flip chart being used, and
  • establishing to staff that service animals may be present and are welcomed.

What has your experience been with the Nominal Group Technique as a researcher or participant? Has your work involved disabled participants and, if so, do you have additional lessons to share?

To find out more:

Olsen, J. (2019) The Nominal Group Technique (NGT) as a Tool for Facilitating Pan-Disability Focus Groups and as a New Method for Quantifying Changes in Qualitative Data. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18: 1-10. (Online – open access) (DOI):


Ven, A. and Delbecq, A. (1972). The Nominal Group as a Research Instrument for Exploratory Health Studies. American Journal of Public Health, 62: 337–342.

Biography: Jason Olsen PhD is the principal lead of Disability Research Specialists Ltd, located in London, UK. He undertakes research, policy evaluations, trainings and presentations related to disability employment, rights, social justice and inclusion.

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