What is a UX focus group?

UX focus groups blog post

When someone says “focus groups,” do you picture that scene from Mad Men, where a group of women were assembled so “researchers” could observe their reactions to a particular product? Well, subtract the vintage sexism in its many forms, and that’s pretty well accurate. People are brought together to share their attitudes and opinions about a product (or service or system), so that the makers of the product (or service or system) can better understand how to monetize those attitudes and opinions — how better to sell that product. (By now it’s starting to be clear to you that when I say product, I mean a physical product, a digital product such as a website, a service, or system. Okay. I’ll stop repeating myself.)

via GIPHY

And the UX part?

How is this different from user, or UX research? User research focuses on people’s needs and goals in the context of interacting with a product, rather than on the attributes of the thing itself. So, rather than talking about whether participants like or don’t like the colours of lipstick on offer, user research would investigate the kinds of circumstances and behaviours that lead to lipstick use, the benefits and challenges of carrying lipstick, and how people react to the actual experience of using the lipstick.

How do you do that, exactly?

One useful format for UX focus groups is a story-sharing session. The moderator invites participants to recall and share, one by one, a particular memorable interaction with a product, good or bad. Since human memory works better for negative experiences, it can be useful to then ask participants to recall a time when the product didn’t do what they needed or wanted it to do — a time when it disappointed them. This set-up usually encourages more open story-telling among the group (participants are freed from feeling like they should praise the product). Then, the moderator can help the group identify common or shared patterns of experience, prioritize the most critical stories, and collaboratively suggest ways in which those could have turned out better.

This narrative-based approach leads to insights about user goals and needs without explicitly focusing on product attributes or features — although insights and reactions to those might emerge pretty naturally from those narratives. And even though you’re not running a collaborative design session, you will probably seed your design thinking with suggestions from focus group participants.

Why run focus groups?

  • You can hear many voices in the same time it would take to interview one or two individuals.
  • For some people, a small group is less intimidating than a one-on-one session.
  • Story-sharing is a natural way for most people to describe their experiences with a product or system.
  • Collaborative story-sharing, where each participant’s story can build on others, can generate discussions that lead to really great insights.

Things to watch out for:

  • People are notoriously bad at reporting on their own behaviour. We have terrible memories. One way to mitigate this is to assign a small pre-work task to your group that might include an experience journal — documenting even one or two interactions with your product or service can really help set people up for being fully engaged in the actual group session.
  • People may be even worse at predicting their own behaviour. We tend to over- or under-estimate when we are asked “how likely are you to…” questions. However, when put in the mind-set of thoughtfully reflecting on past behaviours, we tend to think more carefully and realistically about future possibilities.
  • People are not practiced in the techniques of collaborative design. It’s best to avoid asking focus group participants explicitly to suggest features or design elements, but be prepared to hear them.
  • Unless skillfully moderated, group dynamics can be tricky, with more dominant participants driving focus. Setting up the study as a story-sharing session can help with this. Your keenest talkers are more likely to listen to experiences than opinions. Be prepared to politely redirect, and re-focus the conversation if it goes lopsided.

Let’s summarize…

UX focus groups are GREAT for:

  • Generating a story-based understanding of people’s past experiences with a product.
  • Eliciting people’s underlying assumptions about the product and how it works.
  • Finding common or shared experiences among groups of participants.
  • Quickly and efficiently hearing from a sizable number of people.
  • Collecting insights that are most useful in either the very early stages of product development or redevelopment.

UX focus groups are NOT so great for:

  • Evaluating the design details of a specific product or feature.
  • Testing a product or feature’s usability.
  • Designing new products or features (beyond generating idea seeds).