The Evidence-Based UX Design Guide

Focus Groups

What you can learn

This method is a more traditional marketing approach to gathering evidence. You bring some people from your target audience into a room and get their opinions on existing or new products. It promises the chance to easily understand what your customers want in one session, and gives you a chance to probe them on the areas you are interested in.

Ideally they’ll provide you with feedback and reasoning, so you can go away and address the concerns. They may even give you quotes that describe how much they like your product, which you can use to drive marketing. However when used poorly they can become the justification for sweeping assumptions and overconfidence, based on a few throwaway comments.

Focus groups can be a good place to start your research and help direct it, but they shouldn’t represent the only evidence you find.

How to do it

This is another method where recruiting the right participants matters. You want people who are either your actual audience or who match them. If you already have personas defined then it’s worth trying to get representatives from each of those groupings and not just populate your group with one type. If everyone is too similar then you’ll only hear a chorus of identical feedback. If you’ve not run any focus groups yourself before it can be worth getting an independent agency with a good track record to do so (they’ll help you avoid the mistakes outlined below).

Just like when interviewing or user testing, it’s important to write some kind of script or discussion guide, which captures the questions you want to ask. You don’t need to stick rigidly to it—part of the benefit of focus groups is in letting the group evolve the discussion to areas you hadn’t thought of—but it’s there as a structure to fall back on. Also like interviews or user tests it’s a good idea to have a couple of people facilitate: one can talk and engage people while another takes notes and records.

The feedback you get from a focus group shouldn’t represent the end of your evidence-gathering, as it’s easy for them to feature skewed conclusions. It is better to take the outcomes (particularly any insightful comments) and use these as starting points for further research. You want to test out if the assumptions are true by looking to see if you can find evidence in other forms, through things like surveys and analytics data.

Watch out for

The focus group is potentially a dangerous beast and not something I come across that much today. It used to be the preserve of corporations but occasionally a client would present me with their main research from focus group feedback. The fact it is seen as a quick way to understand customers is best epitomised by the fact that it’s the only user research method they use in product-creation tasks on The Apprentice (and then they often proceed to ignore what people say).

The main reason to be wary of it is that the results can be so easily manipulated by either biased facilitators, who have a vested interest in the product being successful (see The Apprentice), or by the loudest voice in the room. These kinds of problems can appear in other forms of research too but it’s made worse in focus groups by the power of ‘group think’ and peer pressure.

‘Group think’ creates effects where people don’t always behave honestly. If one member of the group loudly declares that she dislikes something, quieter members who think the opposite may agree or stay silent to avoid conflict, or for fear of looking silly. The group can also get sidetracked by one or two people’s opinions and time can run out before everyone can have a say. You can miss out on the nuanced thoughts of some people, which you would be able to dig into when interviewing individually.

Another big problem with focus groups is that you’re placing a lot of weight on what people say rather than what they do, two things that are often quite different. This is illustrated by the classic Sony yellow Walkman story, which is worth reading here if you haven’t heard it. In customer interviews you should try to ask people about actual behaviour but this can be harder to do in a group setting, where people can say things to impress others or to match the group consensus.

These downsides can of course be avoided but require careful moderation and analysis afterwards.

Example tools (and cost)

This isn’t really one that requires lots of tools and software, just a method for recording and writing up afterwards. You can do remote focus groups in online chat software like Slack—I’ve done this for new idea development. The same rules apply to doing it in-person. You tend to need to marshal users more to keep them on topic but it gives less vocal people a chance to be heard and you have the benefit of a written transcript to analyse at the end.

How long does it take?

A focus group should last 1-2 hours to keep it, er, focussed.

How often should you use it?





Last updated on 11 April 2017

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Note: the examples in this guide are for website design, but most of the content is also applicable for native apps and software.