The Time and Place for Focus Groups

Aug 17, 2009

focus-groups-ACFocus groups have traditionally been given a bit of a bad rap, and deservedly so. Starting off as a form of market research, focus groups have been used extensively to reach inappropriate conclusions regarding market segments by attempting to identify needs, preferences, and guide strategy. Stakeholders tend to like them because they are relatively cost and schedule effective. Focus groups can lead the design process down the wrong road if not applied properly. Discussion regarding focus groups and their effectiveness has gotten so polarized that several of our colleagues in the field think focus groups shouldn’t be used at all. But we feel that when implemented correctly, focus groups do have a place and purpose in product development and as long as everyone understands that they are not a substitute for spending time in your customers’ shoes and identifying their true needs and motivations.

The key to understanding when and how to use focus groups is to understand its underlying strengths and weaknesses. Once we understand these principles, we can design our research around them and take advantage of a means to include the user in the product design process.

Focus Group Prerequisites
Focus groups are commonly used to try to answer certain questions about the market including identifying the intended market segment and user needs. The problem being that focus groups are ill-suited to provide this information, rather consumer identity and consumer needs should be thought of as prerequisites for getting useful data from focus groups.

Focus groups cannot identify your consumer. You must know in advance what market segment you are addressing and make sure that your participants reflect that segment. It’s essential to have the right participants in the room, if you don’t, you can easily design to meet needs of an unintended market or no real market at all.

Focus groups cannot identify consumer needs. More often than not, people are so accustomed to their needs that they don’t even recognize them. They’ll find ways to work around their need rather than addressing them and definitely won’t be able to fully describe their experiences in a room full of people talking. It takes an objective person that challenges assumptions and thinks outside the box to recognize and truly address their own needs.

Focus groups need effective mediation. People do not naturally collaborate. In any group setting, some voices will naturally be louder and more outspoken. It’s the mediator’s job to not allow some personalities to dominate the group and allow other voices to go unheard. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink).

Strengths
As mentioned above, focus groups cannot identify the consumer or locate needs. However, if you have the right people in the room, you understand their needs, and you are realistic about the kind of data that you can get, then you can acquire quite a bit of value from a focus group.

What focus groups can tell you is an initial reaction to the question of HOW to address your consumer’s needs. Specifically, a good focus group can give you clues regarding how to design an interaction based on a consumer’s expectations and the context in which the product will be used. For example, a focus group can tell you how much time and effort a consumer says they are willing to commit to satisfying a need; it can tell you how quickly a product has to work, whether it should require single-handed operation, or whether it should be a tap, swipe, or shake form of interaction. A good focus group should feel more similar to an ideation session with the consumer involved. Different consumers should be thinking about the way in which they would like a product to work, adding and removing features and defining the interactions that would work and wouldn’t work. In this kind of situation you can get a verification of needs, validation of design concepts, and discover additional functional requirements for the interface, product or service.

Focus groups also provide very important pricing information. A price point can be very important before engaging in design. A great design that the consumer can’t afford or has a price that is significantly higher than perceived value will fail in the market. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to have a diverse and collaborative team. Once research has established an expected price point, a designer can begin to create concepts while engineers provide feedback on expected manufacturing costs. Focus groups allow you to have a conversation with the consumer around pricing, where more traditional methods of pricing analysis, such as surveys, don’t.

Conclusion
Focus groups can be useful when applied appropriately. Problems occur when they are used to replace other forms of discovery and market research in an attempt to save money. If one can recognize their two fundamental failings, their inability to identify consumers and their needs, then they can be very useful. Of course, there are other ways to address the same research questions, but there’s nothing more efficient than having a group of users in the room engaging in the design process. The concepts and designs that come out of direct interaction between designers and consumers can lead to real magic, plus they can be cost and schedule effective.