Jul 6, 2011
Focus groups have gotten a bad rap over the years as UX research has shifted away from this very traditional method of market research. But focus groups can be quite useful for UX research if we approach them properly. This month, we’ll talk about ways you can get the most out of focus groups and apply the method properly to avoid the pitfalls that many people commonly encounter.
Focus groups can be an effective way to get started on a project. When you are just starting to explore a product idea, getting a group of potential users together to discuss ideas can be extremely helpful. Focus groups can provide you with a cost-effective means of testing your team’s initial assumptions, beginning to identify relevant market segments, exploring product ideas, and acquiring the data you need to create a UX research plan to guide product development.
The biggest mistake people make with focus groups is an overreliance on the findings in informing design decisions. Focus-group findings are subject to a variety of confounds, including the relatively low numbers of participants, participants’ speculation during the session, and the significant influence the opinions of others can have on participants in a focus group. For these reasons, researchers do not typically use focus groups in rigorous scientific research. Focus groups provide high-level feedback that helps you to make strategic decisions. When you are getting to the point where you have to make very specific, tactical design decisions, it is time to move on to more reliable research methods.
One of your goals in doing early, discovery research is to identify relevant market segments. One way of doing this is to gather representatives of different market segments into a single focus group to determine how people in different segments respond to particular ideas. You might find that certain ideas resonate strongly with some participants, but don’t interest other participants at all. In this case, exploring the reasons for their different responses can help you to identify different products that might fit into a single product line.
For example, when examining eReaders, you might find that some participants want a very compact product, while others want a larger screen. By exploring further, you might find that participants who are interested in a compact product like to read novels and tend to travel a lot, so the small form factor supports their reading habits. On the other hand, the participants who want a larger screen might like to read newspapers and magazines at home or in their office. These different use cases could lead to different products, each of which is designed to support the reading habits of one of these two very different market segments.
It’s important that focus-group participants have something in common for you to get useful information about a topic you’re exploring. For example, if you are considering developing a photography product, you’ll likely want all participants to be interested in photography in some way. On the other hand, it’s important to ensure that participants aren’t too similar for you to acquire a variety of perspectives and foster discussion.
Continuing with the photography example, if you have photojournalists, wedding photographers, and amateur photographers in a session together, you might find that they have very different needs regarding a photography product, but you also might find that there are a couple of themes that are consistent across all groups.
When you uncover such differences, it’s important to explore the reasons why people’s needs are different. For example, while amateur photographers might be extremely interested in advanced photo-sharing capabilities, wedding photographers might not. By exploring further, you might determine that wedding photographers need to keep very tight control of their photos, or work product, so they need more security than amateurs do. You might not discover such needs if you didn’t have these different types of users in the room together, talking with each other about their commonalities and differences.
Good focus groups should include a variety of perspectives and foster communication among people with slightly different backgrounds. In a good focus group, participants comment on what other participants say, either expanding on a topic or expressing a difference of opinion. If you do a focus group with just two people, you’ll tend to end up with something more like two separate interviews that you’ve conducted concurrently, because you’ll have a harder time establishing a discussion with a lively exchange of ideas.
Acquiring thoughtful comments on several topics from multiple people can take quite a bit of time. The more participants you add, the more time a focus group takes. We usually find that extending a session beyond two hours causes participants to tire and pull back from the discussion. For this reason, it’s a good idea to limit sessions to only six participants. This also helps you to maintain control of a session as the discussion gathers energy.
A good focus-group session flirts at the edge of chaos. When comments are flying around the room, it can be difficult to maintain a session’s focus and ensure that it covers all of your planned topics. When you’re putting together your UX research plan, begin with the business goals for your research, then identify the research goals that would support those business goals. You should be able to extract some specific research questions from your research goals, and these will be the main topics for your focus group to discuss. Make sure you work all of these topics into each session without disrupting the flow of the discussion.
During a focus group, striking the right tone is essential to facilitating open discussion and the flow of ideas. It’s extremely difficult to exercise any control over a discussion’s tone if you are reading from a script rather than responding to comments and ideas as they emerge. Also, focus groups are unpredictable, so you don’t know what new ideas or concepts may surface. It’s important that you be able to respond to new discoveries fully as they arise, and this can be very difficult if you are following a script.
In our experience, focus groups are the most challenging UX research sessions to moderate, because of the dynamic nature of the sessions, the number of participants you must interact with simultaneously, and the need to strike the right balance between a free-form discussion and a structured research session. Having a partner in the room is incredibly helpful in this kind of setting. Your partner can help out by taking notes, keeping track of time, and helping to enforce structure on the session when it starts to go off the rails. Your partner can also jump in and ask questions when he or she notices that there is a key point that the group isn’t addressing.
You should introduce your partner as someone who is helping you by taking notes, and you should think of that person as a coach. Only one person can control a focus-group session. If control begins to diffuse across multiple moderators, a session can quickly disintegrate, especially if the two moderators don’t completely agree on where to direct a session.
It’s difficult to distill a complex interchange between multiple people into a report, even when using audio or video clips. For focus groups, it’s common for the dynamic exchange of ideas to be an essential takeaway. The best way to ensure stakeholders get this information is to allow them to observe the sessions. We like to do this by setting up video cameras and piping a feed over a secure network connection to any stakeholders who want to see it. We’ve also found that Microsoft RoundTable is especially well suited to streaming and recording focus groups.
As we mentioned earlier, the moderator should be the only person in control of a session. If participants witness others stepping in and directing a session, they may feel that they are also free to influence the direction of the session. As we said, if this happens, a session can quickly disintegrate.
Sometimes people find talking in a group to be intimidating, so it can take a little encouragement to get participants to open up. To facilitate everyone’s participation, set the tone for a session by taking the time to chat with each participant before launching a discussion of your planned topics. Introduce yourself and volunteer some information about your personal experiences to let participants get a feel for who you are.
Do a round of introductions, and really pay attention to what each person says. Follow up each introduction with thoughtful questions that show you really care about who a person is and what he or she has to contribute. If one person seems more comfortable with open communication, begin the session by chatting with that person to set an example of the kind of communication you want, then transition to another participant who might not be quite as talkative. By making this transition, you’ll show more reserved participants that their thoughts and opinions are equally important to you and that they can communicate with you and the group in the same way as more gregarious participants.
If a discussion gains too much momentum, it can take on a life of its own and get away from you, so you might spend 20 minutes talking about something that is completely unrelated to your research goals. To avoid this happening, exercise strict control over a session, and don’t be afraid to stop people if they wander too far off topic or take too much time with their responses. But do this by saying something along the lines of I’m really interested in what you’re saying, but I need to get us back to the main topic of our discussion because our time is limited. This way, the participant won’t feel invalidated or shut down. As you get good at this, you’ll find more subtle ways of directing a conversation back on topic by asking questions like So, how does that relate to XYZ?
Also, take the time to identify any alphas in a group. Alpha is our term for people who like to control a conversation and direct its topics of discussion, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Such people tend to have forceful personalities and promote their ideas to a point where they influence the opinions of others. When your focus group includes one or more alphas, try to get their responses toward the end of each topic of discussion, so you can avoid their having undue influence. Be ready to redirect the conversation if they start to pick up too much steam and want to keep talking. If you have two or more alphas in the same group, try to avoid letting them talk one after the other. Insert a buffer between them. If they get going speaking to each other, they can dominate an entire session.
As you work through each of your topics and new ideas arise, explore them to see what they mean and whether you can get multiple perspectives about them. Often, when people first introduce an idea during brainstorming, it isn’t yet fully formed, or they may not communicate it effectively. By asking further questions or getting responses from other participants, you can get a much better understanding of an idea. In such cases, a natural sense of curiosity serves you well.
Remember, your goal in a focus group is to properly frame your questions rather than trying to arrive at definitive answers. You’ll likely find that some of your questions turn out to be less important than you anticipated, while others that you hadn’t considered to be pivotal turn out to be more important than you thought. Don’t feel pressured to leave a focus-group session with all of the data you need to guide your team’s design decisions. Instead, try to leave each session with a firm understanding of your information needs. This can be extremely valuable because it can help you to avoid spending significant resources investigating topics that are unimportant. It can also help you to identify important issues that could seriously hamper your product’s success if you do not address them properly through additional research.
Although UX research and design have begun to migrate away from using focus groups, they do provide significant value when you use them properly. The most important guideline for the effective use of focus groups is avoiding an overreliance on the resulting findings. The findings that result from this method of UX research are not as reliable as those you can gain through more rigorous research methods. However, focus groups can be a cost-effective way of building the understanding that forms an excellent basis for the UX design research you ultimately need to do. The guidelines we’ve presented here can help you get the most out of your focus groups. Of course, it falls to you to exercise your best judgment in determining what research approaches to implement and how to proceed with them. But keep in mind that focus groups are always a tool at your disposal.