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bad focus group

How to Conduct a Terrible Focus Group Study for UX Research

When they’re bad, they’re terrible. No matter your opinion on focus group studies, here’s the sure-fire way to screw them up.

Chaos, bias, conflict, and superficiality: Surely, these are the ingredients for insightful user research. 

Focus groups can be a breeding ground for all of them. 

Whether you love them or hate them, focus groups certainly have their uses—they’re useful tools for gathering qualitative insights into user perceptions, for instance—and many of their most frequently cited shortcomings can be overcome with good research planning and the right expectations.

But if you’re not interested in running effective UX research focus groups, you can employ a few simple, self-sabotaging strategies to guarantee that your focus group fails. 

Below, you’ll find 6 best practices for designing the kind of focus group that will waste time and money, produce unreliable insights that don’t get used, and confirm stakeholders’ worst suspicions about qualitative user research.

How to conduct a terrible focus group study for UX research 

1. Don’t prepare a research plan.

As the saying goes, “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four binge-watching Squid Game with my cat.” 

The most challenging part of designing any study is creating an effective UX research plan—so why not skip it? 

Just roll up to your focus group on the day of with no notes, no understanding of your research goals or the problems you’re looking to solve, no interview questions prepared, and no tangible plan for how you’ll use your findings afterwards. 

You’re smart enough, right? You can totally wing it. 

2. Recruit a homogeneous group of participants.* 

Gender, personality, cultural background, socioeconomic status, and other personal characteristics are all wildcard variables that could throw off your research findings. 

Cultural differences will probably cause awkward misunderstandings, and it's not your job to be culturally sensitive in your research anyway. Designing inclusive products is the product developer’s responsibility. 

So when you’re recruiting participants for your focus group, try to find people who are eerily similar to each other, like those twins from The Shining. Ideally, the participant panel only comprises your friends and family. 

*Note: You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but... This article is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Please don’t take these words at face value—especially the bit about recruiting a non-diverse group of participants. Representation matters, and so does thoughtful research design. 

3. Invite dozens of people. 

Everyone knows that five people isn’t enough for a valid finding in qualitative research. 

You have to talk to as many people as possible. 

Book the biggest conference venue you can find. Blast invitations far and wide—the more the merrier! Call it a focus party. It doesn’t matter who shows up, as long as you fill the room. Remember in college how there was that one house known for throwing the biggest parties and they were always too crowded and loud and all you could think about was how much cleaning the place up in the morning would suck but then you realized they probably never did clean it up, not really? That’s the vibe you’re going for. 

In the totally unlikely experience that people in your focus party contradict or fail to validate your very good preconceived notions, then you have to run the focus group again. Rinse and repeat until you’ve found participants who validate your hypothesis and prove you were right all along. 

4. Let one person dominate the conversation. 

The loudest voice in the room is usually the right one. I mean, why else would they sound so confident? 

Power dynamics play an important role in any group conversation. One obnoxious loudmouth will rise as the natural leader, while the more timid folks will defer to the majority opinion—often out of complacency, fear of conflict, or a lack of confidence in presenting their ideas. 

Once you’ve identified the extraverted steamroller, tell them to stand up in front of the group and filibuster the rest of the conversation. If other participants try to talk, gently remind them that it’s rude to interrupt when others are speaking. 

5. Let the intern moderate her first week. 

Anyone can moderate a focus group study. It’s not that hard. 

Rather than waste your time and energy moderating, let the intern do it. Heck, get the engineering or sales intern to run your focus group. (This is called democratization of research.)

All they have to do to facilitate the conversation is:

  • Ask leading questions like, “you probably love that feature, right? It’s my favorite feature.”
  • Clearly favor 1–2 participants over the others, suggesting they all go out to lunch afterwards. 
  • Derail the conversation with a long-winded story about why they hate oysters. 
  • Answer a phone call from their brother, who needs help prepping for his biochem exam. 
  • Encourage deeper responses by reminding participants of their own mortality. 

6. Over-rely on insights from one focus group study. 

Normally, we’d suggest you mix a variety of research methods to gain richer, more nuanced user insights. 

Not for focus group studies, though. 

You should be able to discover everything you need to know about your users from a focus group alone. If you can’t, you didn’t do it right. 

… And that’s about it! Everything you need to know to conduct really, really bad focus group studies.

Seriously, though—focus groups don’t have to be that bad. 

Focus groups get a bad rap. 

Plagued by social phenomena like groupthink and personal bias, this oft-maligned method comes with fundamental challenges for researchers. 

But before you’re swept away by the tide of focus group criticisms, know this: Focus groups are meant to uncover perceptions, not behaviors. 

The real reason focus groups tend to fail is because researchers try to use them to answer the wrong questions, during the wrong stage in product development—so don’t toss this method out of your research toolbox just yet. 

TL;DR tips for a good focus group study include:

  • Prepare a research plan: By defining your goals ahead of time, you’ll know whether or not a focus group is the right methodology to use. Typically, focus groups are more useful for marketing teams or very early on in the product development process. If you're looking to understand how people will behave when interacting with a stimulus, design, or product, then focus groups are not the right method.
  • Recruit a diverse participant pool: Recruitment can be challenging for focus groups, because you want to ensure you have representative samples. Ideally, both characteristics and personalities are balanced to prevent one or two people from dominating the conversation. Learn how Recruit can help.
  • Keep groups to about 6–8 people: One of the biggest mistakes in conducting a focus group study is recruiting too few—or too many—people. Roughly 6–8 people is a good size for getting enough insight from participants, while still being small enough for the moderator to effectively manage the conversation. 
  • Make sure everyone gets the chance to speak: A focus group of 6–8 people will be useless if only one or two participants actually speak. It’s up to the moderator to be mindful of who has and hasn’t contributed to the discussion and make room for the quieter participants to have a voice. 
  • Choose an experienced moderator: Successful focus group moderators need to be good facilitators. They should be able to manage multiple personalities, leep conversations focused, reflect what they’re hearing back to the participants, and understand when to ebb and flow from the plan. Much of this is learned on the job via trial and error, so an experienced moderator will likely be more successful than a new one.
  • Augment your study with other research methods: Rarely can one research method provide all the insight you need to make confident decisions about your product and its users. If your focus group is conducted properly, you’ll likely leave the room with additional questions and factors you'd like to explore. Pairing your study with other methods will allow you to gain more comprehensive insights. 

Now that you know the worst-case scenario for focus groups, learn how to conduct a focus group that doesn’t suck.

Lizzy Burnam
Product Education Manager

Marketer, writer, poet. Lizzy likes hiking, people-watching, thrift shopping, learning and sharing ideas. Her happiest memory is sitting on the shore of Lake Champlain in the summer of 2020, eating a clementine.

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