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This part of the field guide comes from our 2019 version of the UX Research Field Guide. Updated content for this chapter is coming soon!
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A focus group might involve plumbers discussing the installation of shower heads, or pet owners discussing their grievances with fur around the house, or cancer patients sharing their insights into what it’s like to go through treatment at a certain stage.
Focus groups are not interviews that happen to have multiple respondents in the same room. Au contraire, the value of a focus group lies in the group discussion, and the interactions that occur among the members.
This method (which, as we’ll discuss, has its detractors) is best used to explore what people believe, how they feel, and what they perceive.
Focus groups are moderated conversations with a group of 5 to 10 participants in which a moderator asks the group a set of questions about a particular topic. They can be helpful tools for learning about attitudes, beliefs, desires, and reactions to concepts or designs. Focus groups typically last from 1 to 2 hours.
Because of their social dimension, focus groups can sometimes be more effective at uncovering spontaneous reactions or ideas than 1:1 methods like user interviews. However, there is a risk that participants might influence each other or inhibit others from sharing honest thoughts or feedback.
Focus groups are traditionally used by social scientists seeking to understand group dynamics, or by marketing researchers in order to obtain feedback about a product or assess perceptions about a brand.
Focus groups are used to inform vision and strategic decisions. They provide clarity around a participant's big-picture beliefs and philosophies in order to determine a potential company, product, or service direction.
They can also be used to inform definition decisions, allowing you to get early feedback on a potential design direction to determine if it’s worth additional investment or resourcing.
Focus groups can generate a large amount of qualitative data, including detailed notes, transcripts, audio, and video recordings.
All of this data is then synthesized into recommendations related to potential product directions or opportunities.
Focus groups are a good way to draw out ideas and information that participants might not be willing or able to share in an interview setting or through a survey.
Being surrounded by a small group of peers makes many people more comfortable and more willing to talk, even about sensitive or personal topics.
The interaction among group members can bring out ideas that were previously not conscious, or simply taken for granted. The way group members agree or disagree—either with passion or indifference—can shed light on how important a certain consideration should or should not be to your development team.
“If I achieve one thing with my time here on earth, I might be content if that one thing could be burning to the ground the practice of running focus groups in place of actual user research.” — Erika Hall, Co-founder, Mule Design
Some user researchers really dislike focus groups. And there are plenty of reasons to be wary of this approach—it’s certainly not a method to use in isolation. Let’s go over some of the commonly cited drawbacks:
“The correlation between stated intent and actual behavior is usually low and negative.” — Gerald Zaltman, How Customers Think
Humans are notoriously bad at predicting their own behaviors, remembering past events, and conceptualizing abstract ideas. There is a large gap between what people say and what they do—and group dynamics can further compound this fact of human nature. If you’re trying to get an accurate read on user behavior or customer purchasing intent, focus groups are probably the wrong method.
Focus groups trace their roots to the 1930s and 1940s, when they were used by social scientists to study the effect of WWII propaganda. Advertisers then adopted the method as a way to understand how consumers think.
Focus groups are an effective way to study how individuals behave in a group, and how group dynamics impact perceptions and decision-making. In other words, focus groups are a useful tool for studying groups of people.
What they are not good at is uncovering individual thoughts and feelings. That’s because focus groups lead to groupthink, a phenomenon in which participants unconsciously conform to the opinion of the group at large. Groupthink is a natural byproduct of group discussion—it’s a means of maintaining social harmony—but it means that focus groups offer a skewed understanding of individual users’ experiences.
We’ve all been in a meeting or classroom where one or two dominant voices command the room. (If you can’t remember such an occasion, chances are good that you’re one of those voices!)
In a group setting, extroverts and contrarians can easily monopolize the conversation. Sometimes this means literally talking over other people, but it isn’t always combative.
One or two influential participants often steer a discussion through the strength of their thoughts and opinions. All it takes is one charming and persuasive member to declare that wine from the Emilio-Romagna region is the best wine and suddenly the whole group loves Lambrusco. (And they would be right to do so, but that's beside the point.)
Your audience is likely a fairly even mix of introverts, extroverts, and folks in the middle of the spectrum. But in a focus group, the voices of quieter, more reserved personalities often go unheard. Again, if you’re hoping to learn about individuals, focus groups are not the right method.
The success of a focus group depends heavily on the skill of the moderator.
Group dynamics are tricky. No matter how diligently you prepare or how thoroughly screen participants, bringing a group of people together is always a gamble. Personalities might clash, leading to a conflict between a couple of highly opinionated people. Or sometimes, like a bad dinner party, there’s just no group chemistry no matter how hard your moderator might try.
If you’re conducting a focus group to understand user perceptions and reactions to a product, give users an opportunity to interact with that product. Feedback based on actual experience is more accurate and useful than feedback based on hypothetical scenarios or out-of-context prompts. Run individual usability tests before participants convene for a focus group discussion.
Include questions in your screener survey that will help you identify introverted and extroverted participants. Ask questions like “Does being around other people give you energy?” and “Do you prefer to be with other people or to be alone?”
You might also conduct a screener call with participants to assess their conversation style—do they dominate the call? How much prompting do they need to provide detailed answers? Will their voice be drowned out in a group?
It’s impossible to predict how any group of people will interact when it comes down to it, but you can do your best to create a balanced group that won’t feel like hostile territory for the introverts involved. You might also consider conducting a group with only self-identified introverts.
Moving your focus groups to an online setting can mitigate the effects of group dynamics. Seasoned user researcher Jay Eskenazi suggests using a platform that allows participants to share their responses with moderators privately, before they see the responses of other group members. This ensures that their responses are “uncontaminated by group dynamics.”
With so many cons and caveats, are focus groups ever worth it?
They can be!
In fact, oftentimes the reason focus groups fail is because researchers try to use them to answer the wrong questions or during the wrong stage in product development.
Focus groups are meant to uncover perceptions, not behaviors. Group dynamics can be a great way to learn about perceptions because conversations can reveal things that a one-on-one interview might not.
First things first:
As we discussed above, focus groups often fail because researchers use them to answer the wrong types of research questions.
Before you spend time and money on planning, recruiting, and conducting a focus group study, make sure it’s really the right method to meet your needs! Remember: Focus groups can help you uncover perceptions and opinions, not behaviors.
Read the chapter on How to Create a User Research Plan for a step-by-step guide to coming up with effective research goals and questions. A good research question is:
If you’re conducting a focus group online, your biggest logistical considerations will be deciding on a platform, sending each participant a link and instructions on how to join the group, and troubleshooting any technical issues along the way.
For in-person focus groups, location plays a much larger role in the planning process.
The decision is partially a matter of logistics—you need some place everyone can get to, and you need a comfortable room of the right size that is free of distracting noises. If you’d like to observe from behind a two-way mirror, you’ll want to invite participants to a lab (either your own, or a rented space).
Location can also impact group dynamics, and different people feel comfortable in different kinds of places. For example, businesspeople will find the conference room at a hotel comfortingly familiar, whereas another group of participants might prefer a ring of folding chairs in a space that feels like a church basement or a classroom.
The question is: Under what circumstances do these people normally sit around and talk about this subject? Try to mimic those circumstances as closely as possible—nobody likes to feel like fish out of water.
Always visit a location before to check:
Focus groups require experienced moderators with strong interviewing skills and the ability to bring a group back to center if things veer off course. If a moderator is too passive, the group can get lost in its own momentum and veer off topic. Too leading, and your results will be skewed. Awkward, and the participants won’t feel comfortable. Overly confident, and they could be perceived as domineering and off putting.
Good moderators have:
As with other research methods like user interviews, the first step of recruitment involves identifying the participants you need.
Ask yourself: Who can answer my research questions?
If you have a sense of your product’s target personas, there may be an opportunity to match your participants with those personalities.
If you’re in earlier stages of development, aim for a highly diverse population within your product’s target market. All sorts of people wear sneakers, for example, so a focus group on sneakers would be very diverse indeed: a whole spectrum of sneaker-wearers could be included. A focus group on tie clips and cufflinks, on the other hand, might look a bit more homogenous. If your target audience is tighter, you might need fewer groups overall.
In either case, your focus group participants need to have something in common in order for the discussion to provide you with actionable insights.
When creating screener surveys to filter for good-fit participants, always second-guess your participant criteria: Does gender matter? Income? Education level? Race? While demographics might influence the way people experience a product, most of the time these factors don’t prevent someone from being able to answer your research question.
If you’re interested in how experiences differ across populations, you can collect demographic data without screening on it.
Pro tip: Many recruiting services, including User Interviews, already collect (with consent) data on participants about things like race, ethnicity, income, education, and location. Unless you’re filtering by one of these factors, don’t need to include these questions in your screener.
The more groups you have, the more ideas and opinions you will collect, but this is helpful only up to a point. How many groups your study will need depends on your budget, how many different varieties of participants you want to include, and how many geographical areas you want to cover.
Aim to recruit for 3 to 6 groups, depending on the requirements of your study.
Group size affects the group dynamic. Too few people, and the discussion won't take off. The meeting will function more like an interview with multiple interviewees. Too many people, and not everyone will be heard.
Focus groups typically involve 5 to 10 participants, although you can conduct a focus group with as few as 3 participants. We don’t recommend going over 10, since not only will some participants be overlooked, but also because larger focus groups tend to take more time and require more effort from the moderator.
So, if you’re conducting a study with 4 focus groups of 6 participants, you’ll need to budget for 24 participants overall.
Make it easy for participants to show up to your study. Send each participant an email with the following key pieces of information:
Any research involving humans requires informed consent. Always take care to explain to participants that you will be recording and collecting data and how you plan to use it. Have them sign a document, written in plain language, confirming their consent. Repeat this information at the outset of the session, and verify once again that everyone is on the same page.
Pay your participants! (Or compensate them fairly another way, if cash-based incentives aren’t the right option for your audience.)
On average, you should plan to compensate each participant at a rate of $100 per hour for in-person focus group studies or $80 an hour for online studies.
If you’re targeting professionals by industry, that rate goes up to $125 for an in-person study or $100 for an online focus group.
As Demetrius Madrigal and Bryan McClain write in UXmatters:
“A good focus-group session flirts at the edge of chaos.”
A moderator's job is not to ask questions and get answers the way an interviewer does. Instead, facilitating a focus group involves using questions, group exercises, and other techniques to get the discussion going and keep it going.
The trickiest part of moderating is making sure that everyone gets to speak and that one or two dominant voices don’t end up monopolizing the conversation. It also takes great skill to keep a discussion on track without seeming overbearing.
Nielsen Norman Group explains:
For participants, the focus-group session should feel free-flowing and relatively unstructured, but in reality, the moderator must follow a preplanned script of specific issues and set goals for the type of information to be gathered. During the group session, the moderator has the difficult job of keeping the discussion on track without inhibiting the flow of ideas and comments.
Writing a focus group discussion guide is, in many ways, similar to writing an interview guide. The difference, of course, is that you’re writing questions that will be answered by multiple people in the same session and that will, ideally, spark conversations in which you become an active observer.
As with user interviews, think of your list of discussion questions as a guide, not a script. Keep your list of must-asks brief—otherwise you may not get to them all.
Try to anticipate how the conversation might go. Participants might have difficulty answering a certain question, or you may be eager to dig deeper into a topic if the conversation allows. Create a list of followup questions in case you need them.
Although it’s impossible to predict how any discussion will play out, do your best to anticipate moments where you might need to rein things back in. Be prepared by coming up with a game plan and a few key phrases for dealing with different types of disruptions.
A few more rules of thumb for writing focus group questions:
Warm up questions
Always open with some getting-to-know-you questions. Keep things light, and let participants get comfortable with each other.
Discovery and context of use questions
When you’re conducting a focus group to gain a broad understanding of participant motivations, needs, and opinions in order to generate ideas.
Usability and interaction questions
If you’re conducting a focus group after usability testing to gather feedback on a prototype or product, ask open-ended questions like:
To understand participants’ opinions about a design or experience and evaluate how pleasing (or not) it is.
Focus groups can involve activities as well as the standard question and answer format. You might try working in one of these activities to add variety to the session and generate additional artifacts.
Group activities ideas for focus groups include:
Analyzing focus group discussion data can be difficult, in part because there is so much of it. Transcripts alone can run to dozens of pages.
Generally, the analysis process must include both the video and the transcript, in order to capture non-verbal communication and in order to eliminate confusion over who said what. You’ll also likely find yourself referring back to the session notes taken by your partner.
Focus groups produce a lot of data, and session recordings can be difficult to wade through without supplementary notes. Ask your partner to take notes during the session so you can focus on moderating the discussion. Have them:
Immediately after each focus group session, revisit your discussion guide and try to recall the responses, trends, and questions that arose from each topic. Use this time to review session notes and any participant-created materials while your memory is fresh.
Since focus group studies produce so much data from so many different people, it is useful to write up a simple report or summary after each session.
Use qualitative data coding to tag the artifacts from each session. Ideally, you (or your notetaker) will have done some preliminary data coding in real-time. If not, don’t wait until the end of a study—code your notes and artifacts after each session. If you’ve been tagging things as you go, revisit your notes at the end of a study to clean up your tags. Consult audio or video recordings if something is unclear.
Once all your data has been coded, you’ll be able to organize, tabulate, and analyze patterns and themes by descriptive stats like frequency and percentage.
Analyzing focus group data involves analyzing each session individually, and then analyzing those reports again in a meta-analysis of key insights and themes.
Themes or categories that you might use include:
When analyzing focus group data, ask yourself:
It’s easy to get bogged down in focus group data. Remember that the value of focus groups lies in their ability to reveal big-picture, qualitative information about people. Keep that in mind as you run your analysis. And as always, use your initial research questions as a guide to analyzing the data.
Similarly, don’t try to include every single observation, quote, or insight in your research report. Keep your deliverables focused on the key insights, themes, and takeaways that relate back to your study goals.
If your focus groups involve group activities, including the outputs of these activities can help illustrate your final report. As with interviews, sharing video clips and key quotes can help stakeholders connect with the data in your report. But remember that it’s your job as a researcher to help people make sense of the research—whenever you include things like participant-made artifacts or quotations, always contextualize the information for people who weren’t in the room.
Focus groups require recording equipment, first and foremost. You will definitely want to review footage later. If you are conducting an in-person focus group, this will involve a video camera (or several) and a good mic.
For remote focus groups, you’ll need a video conferencing tool like Zoom, or a specialized solution like one of the ones listed below.
You will also need:
Focus groups are rarely used alone, even if the goals of the research are entirely qualitative. Interviews, for example, are another qualitative research approach that can be used to drill into some of the more micro details (the “whys”) that focus groups aren’t designed to answer.
Alternatively, a focus group study can be used to develop the parameters of a quantitative study, such as a survey. On the flip side, you might conduct a focus group as a follow up to a survey.
But that doesn’t mean its inevitable! Focus groups get a bad rap.
It is easy to screw this method up. (If you’re determined to do so, we actually wrote a handy guide on How to Conduct a Terrible Focus Group Study for UX Research.) But most of the time, focus groups fail because researchers are using them to answer the wrong questions.
So long as they’re used for the right reasons and moderated by a skilled and experienced user researcher (like yourself!), focus groups still deserve a place in the UX research toolkit.