Focus Groups: how do they contribute to your user research?

Conversation in focus groups

A focus group is a moderated group conversation or debate around a specific subject. It delves around opinions, perceptions and experiences of the participants. It is a qualitative research technique that comes in handy to discover brand perception of a product or service.  Focus groups are used in market research and UX research, being very valuable to understand aspects like user satisfaction, brand perception or user experiences.

Not being very familiar with the topic, it could be considered as an easy task as gathering a group of people and asking them to answer exactly to what we want to know. 

Reality could not be more different. Focus groups are an usual technique but the implementation requires a moderator with very specific abilities that knows how to manage a group to achieve the challenges.

What do we have to consider to start a focus group?

  • The participant’s socio-demographic profile: Is it necessary to consider their social status? Do we need to hear only one gender or a gender balance? Young people or elders? Which hobbies interests us? Does the educational level matter? And their work experience? We need to know crystal clear whose opinions are important for us to hear and this is an essential requirement to start. A good screener and a deep identification analysis of the personas is an ideal starting point for a successful focus group.
  • Location and availability: It’s important to plan adequately the space where the focus group is going to be held. Making the participants feel comfortable is essential to be able to get the answers we need. Also, we can take into consideration that sometimes there are participants that don’t attend, hence its recommended to have backup participants. There are also tools that allow to hold remote focus groups, which can come in handy for international problems, to avoid transport costs and inconveniences.
  • What kind of participants are needed? If there is a previous work on the personas of the product or service, this will be very clear. If there is a need for participants with strongly different points of views, it’s important to take into account that conflicts may arise during the conversation. An adequate segmentation of the participants is essential, besides a moderation in which all participants feel comfortable to express themselves without fear of judgement. 
  • Only one group or several? It’s possible to divide the participants in several groups and analyze their opposing views in the report. Groups can be divided according to specific criteria needed for the project like age, gender, beliefs, experience with the service…
  • How many people per group? There is not a official number recommended for this technique. However, Nielsen recommends having a minimum of 6 representative users and also recommends to have several groups.
  • Length: there is no norm for this either, but the approximate length is usually 1 to 2 hours. In less than an hour it might be difficult to obtain adequate insights and more than two hours might be too tiring for both users and the moderator. 

A good moderator: the key to success

Stereotypes always arise in any kind of conversation: the one who always want to be the protagonist of the conversation, the person who has trouble expressing, the person who opens up just naturally… The moderator should be very aware of this conversational group dynamics to ensure that all participants express their point of view and there is no monopoly of the conversation.  There is no problem stopping a participant speech (always with respect) and asking more often those who tend to be more quiet for their opinion. It’s also helpful to repeat the ideas of the participants who don’t really express themselves soundly to extract the reactions of the group, that otherwise might have not listen to.

Focus groups depend on a good conversation

All participants must have the opportunity to express their opinions and experiences.

In terms of opposing views, it’s also important to take into account the participants’ experience level, sociocultural level and beliefs and considering those during moderation. The dynamics that arise due to different social perceptions need to be considered and it’s possible that some participants don’t feel comfortable expressing their opinions in front of other groups seen as dominant or openly opposed to their ideas. Finding balance as a moderator is key to make participants feel comfortable and open to express their opinions naturally.

Exercises or techniques that can be used in focus groups:

There are different activities that can help break the ice and allow participants to be more open about their experiences and beliefs.

Group activities:

  • Answers to specific questions that the moderator asks: it’s the most usual technique. A script or a list of subjects are the starting point, but it’s less structured than a personal interviews. The conversation flows naturally depending on the participant’s responses.
  • Role playing: it’s an interpretation of a role by the participants that helps analyzing behaviour that are not usually expressed verbally or that are difficult to arise spontaneously in a conversation.

Individual experience:

    • Selection amongst different alternatives: several options are presented to the participants to choose and argument their selection with a subsequent discussion. It can be used, for example, to choose a tagline, between designs or a use of a service. This allow to understand what are the attributes and associations participants make with each one. 
    • List making: this can be interesting to understand mental associations, how they group concepts, what are their experiences around a service or a particular product.
    • Fill the blank activities: useful for concepts like brand perception.
    • Creation exercises: asking the participants to imaging or facing future situations erases certain pressures associated with sharing personal experiences.
    • Drawings: stimulating lateral thinking and creativity in parts of the conversation that can be complex or difficult to tell spontaneously. It can be used, for example, with the quiet participants to express their opinion by turns in a laid-back fashion.
    • Card sorting: allows to “get into the participant’s minds” and to understand their mind associations. It can be useful, for example, to work hierarchies or the Information Architecture. 

Ultimately, focus groups are a very common technique both in market research and UX research. However, it’s necessary to know adequately the possibilities that the technique allows and taking into account that the experience and quality of the moderator are decisive in the end result. It’s interesting combining this and other qualitative or quantitative techniques to be able to obtain more valuable insights about what we want to research.

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