An Introduction to Focus Groups in User Research Methodology

In the post titled “Summary of User Research Methodology” published last year, I have compared user research methods in two textbooks. There are many methods now used in user research like questionnaire, observation, interviews, focus groups, portrait, experimental method, surveys, contextual inquiry, comparative analysis, usability testing, diary keeping and task analysis. Some of them, like observation, interviews, focus groups, portrait, surveys, contextual inquiry, diary keeping and task analysis, are qualitative research methods and others like questionnaire, experimental method, comparative analysis and usability testing are quantitative research methods. Questionnaire, observation, interviews are common methods used by most researchers, while some others are not common and even not mentioned in humanities and social sciences like focus groups and portrait which are specially used in user experience research field. Firstly, I will give an introduction to focus groups in user research methodology. The following introduction is quoted from the article “What are Focus Groups in User Experience Research?

A focus group is a qualitative research method that aims to gather quick user insights from a variety of people in a short period of time.

Focus groups are designed to gain an understanding of customer opinions and perceptions of new concepts or ideas. They are typically used during the design and early stages of the research phase to gain consensus on customer perception. Focus groups are also useful after the product has been implemented since it helps to gather user insights on a functioning product.

The goal of focus groups is to get many participants in a room to gather as many different ideas and perspectives as possible. However, having too many people can limit the ability to gather feedback from all participants. After all, there isn’t a linear relationship between the number of participants and the number of insights. We found that the ideal group size for a focus group is 8-10 people.

It is also recommended to facilitate three or four different focus groups to ensure a good mix of perspectives and ideas.

Preparing for your Focus Groups

Focus groups require the researcher to create a list of questions, or a discussion guide, to structure the group conversation. However, feel free to let conversations evolve as they will without researcher intervention. The session should generally last from 60 to 90 minutes.

Once you have the objectives for your focus group, you should start recruiting for it. If you’d like to learn more about recruiting participants for high-quality user insights, read this post.

Also, you should select a location that is convenient for your participants. If you don’t have space in your office, you can find conference rooms on sites like Breather.

Once you’ve done that, send a follow-up invitation with the proposed agenda, topics for discussion, and location details. It’s a good idea to send over the topic ahead of time so participants can opt out, especially if it’s a sensitive topic.

Conducting Focus Groups

While conducting focus groups, ask permission to record the session so you can reference it in the future. It will be helpful to refer to the recording in the synthesis phase in case there are any gaps in your notes.

If co-workers want to join, have them sit on the outskirts of the room, quietly taking notes. As a facilitator, it’s difficult to take notes while conducting the focus group so leave room for breaks so your co-workers can ask questions.

During the session, encourage equal participation among the group. If a few people dominate the conversation, call on others to participate. Also, consider a round-table approach in which you go around the table, giving each person a chance to answer each question.

Lastly, avoid abrupt topic changes. Even though you created a discussion guide, allow the conversation to naturally unfold. This is how you will gain the most valuable user insights.

Following the Session

After the focus group, review any notes and recordings. Write down any points of group consensus, surprises or unexpected topics and review with your co-workers.

Advantages of Conducting Focus Groups

As a socially-oriented research method, focus groups capture real-life data in a social setting. The research team will be able to see how participants speak about a particular topic. Typically, points of consensus will be highlighted during the focus group.

Focus groups generate quick results. Unlike moderated sessions, where you’ll spend hours and hours gathering user insights from 6-8 individual participants, focus groups yield similar insights in an hour or two. Focus groups produce a large amount of data on a topic in a short period of time.

Group conversations often bring out aspects of a topic or reveal information about a subject that may not have been anticipated by the researcher or emerged from individual interviews.

Lastly, it provides access to comparisons that participants make between personal experiences. This can be very valuable and provide access to consensus and diversity of experiences on a topic.

Limitations of Conducting Focus Groups

Focus groups are a poor method for evaluating interface usability. Instead, they should be used to evaluate concepts, ideas, and brand perception. In order to conduct a usability study to test prototypes and websites, opt for a moderated or unmoderated session. You’ll be able to easily conduct both types of studies with a comprehensive user testing software.

Another downside of conducting a focus group is that group dynamics can be swayed with strong opinions. Participants may not want to disagree with the larger group but they would be more willing to share their opinion in a one-on-one setting.

You must be diligent with the participants you select since they must be comfortable interacting openly. If they are shy and don’t speak their mind, you won’t be able to surface those valuable user insights that you’re looking for.

As with most facilitated research, moderators can inadvertently influence the data, since they have the ability to sway comments and take the conversation in a different direction.

Lastly, groups can be difficult to pull together since you have to coordinate and schedule participants so that they are in the same room at the same time.

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