Focus groups, often maligned within the field of user experience for not being able to get the “right” information, are actually a great way to collect information.   But as a tool, the value of focus groups is limited to only certain types of information gathering.  A problem I’ve seen is that the use of focus groups is sometimes abused, either because a manager insists that a focus group be the form of user research that is provided, or because of a lack of understanding on what value a focus group can bring to the table.  Sometimes the term itself is simply overused, with a variety of discussions and activities called “focus groups” that really do not meet the definition.

So what are focus groups in user experience, and what should a stakeholder and moderator know about conducting focus groups in the user experience space?

Focus groups are great for understanding attitudes, perceptions and future directions.

Focus groups are a form of qualitative information gathering where a group of people who are connected to some product or area of interest gather together and generally sit around a table and discuss their perceptions, beliefs and opinions.  They are commonly used in market research settings to better understand various issues around products.

Focus groups are also used in user experience settings centered on a particular type of technology or web/mobile resource.  The goal is usually to better understand attitudes and perceptions around the use of that product or what direction future versions of the product should take based on user needs.

Focus groups cannot assess usability.

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard a client or potential client say “we need to assess usability so let’s conduct some focus groups.”  While in some cases, they actually mean “let’s conduct a series of one-on-one usability studies” and are simply misusing the term “focus groups,” in other cases, they actually expect that a group of people can get together and determine if a product is usable.  They can’t – except in the extremely rare use case that the product is one that is used naturally by a group of people collaboratively.   While focus groups are great for attitudes and opinions, for assessing actual usability, it would be unlikely that any kind of user research would be better than a usability test.

Findings from a focus group should be subsequently validated individually.

Focus groups sometimes do come up with interesting and insightful improvements for a user interface.  However, since focus groups cannot actually assess usability, what sounds great in a discussion may not work well when it’s actually functional on a web or mobile resource.  Just like any other type of initial requirements gathering, just because something is conceived in a focus group does not mean that it has been validated with users and does not have to be subsequently tested.

The big value of focus groups is in the discussion and volleying of ideas.

I observed a focus group very recently where the moderator asked everyone in the group to go around and choose attributes around something.  Everyone chose their attributes, and then the moderator asked everyone to raise their hands to choose their favorite attribute.  While certainly this information had the potential to be useful, in an effort to focus on data collection, the moderator misused the focus group.  A lot of the focus group time was spent working independently and then going around the room and voting.  Choosing the best attribute should not have been done during this focus group since it could have just as easily been done in a follow-up survey, and also because any effort to “vote” in a focus group is invariably biased by participants observing the other hands in the room.  Focus group time is better spent in understanding and discussing some hot-button issues around one or two of the most discussion-generating attributes such that something one participant says leads to further refined or even contrary ideas from other participants.

Focus groups should have the right number of participants.

I’ve seen an information gathering session declared to be a focus group with a single participant, and I’ve seen a session declared to be a focus group with twenty participants.  How many participants should a focus group have?

If there is only one participant, then it is clearly not a focus group.  It could be a one-on-one interview, or it could be a usability study, but it is simply not a focus group.

If there are twenty participants, while one could call it a focus group, it’s perhaps more of a parlor meeting.  If the goal is to get everyone talking, then with a large group there is very limited time for interaction and the key value of a focus group is lost.

Ideally, a focus group should target the recruitment of 8 – 10 people (which likely means that the real number will be 6 – 8).  In my experience, this ends up with the right balance of size vs. opportunity for interaction.  Even dropping down to 4 or 5 will still often generate a good discussion.

Once I agreed to do a series of focus groups for a project, only to find out from the client that instead of the larger number we had discussed, they had decided that each focus group would only have two people.  While this dyad approach still allowed for valid user research and I did get good data, the sessions were more like interviewing two people at a time as opposed to fully interactive focus groups.

Focus groups should have a logger.

Whenever I do focus groups, I always have a designated focus group logger.  This goes beyond a person to write on a dry erase board or block paper in the background (which I often do myself).  Rather it’s someone to capture all the salient comments and key points – not as a transcript.  This logger should be skilled enough in user experience that the notes represent the key findings of the focus group sessions.   I do record the sessions as well, but invariably, particularly with so many people in the room, no matter how well the microphones are positioned, it’s not perfect.  That’s why the logger is the better answer.

It’s hard to have focus groups online.

I’ve occasionally gotten requests to conduct focus groups online in a virtual environment, but I do not believe that this is a good data collection approach.  It’s very hard for participants to sit at their computer and maintain the engagement necessary for a focus group when there are a number of people involved.  While the large virtual meeting may be necessary for work settings, it is really not a good approach for a focus group. When in-person group discussion is simply not possible so data collection must be virtual, it’s much more preferable to meet with participants in one-on-one telephone or online shared-screen interviews. I’ve found this individual approach to generally be more successful than group calls in maintaining consistent user engagement.

Focus groups are just one tool in the UX researcher’s toolbox.

Ultimately, focus groups, like other user experience research tools, are just one tool in our toolbox.  Focus groups as a user research technique should neither be ignored nor be seen as an approach for all research.  Instead, first we assess what we need to know and then pull out the tools needed; sometimes we’ll find that a focus group is the right way to gather the information we are seeking.

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