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Qualitative research: Focus Group

Focus group is another kind of qualitative user research. It allows you to get a feedback from a group of individuals. Moderated focus groups are the most common. Participants need to be recruited upfront and they need to represent your desired market segment. You need an experienced facilitator to run a focus group. Best practice is to record focus group on camera for future analysis.

There are 4 stages of a focus group research:

Problem statement

What questions you want to ask? What are topics you want to cover?
You need to define clear objectives for a focus group. Objectives will define what participants you'll need to recruit and what questions to ask. Some experts believe the ideal number of major questions for a focus group is 8. 10 is good and 12 is acceptable.

Recruit relevant participants

Who can answer your questions? Who represents a market?
By definition, focus group should consist of 6 to 10 people plus a facilitator. Participants you will recruit should represent your target market. But they can and should be different in demography (age, sex, education, experience, income etc.). You may consider inviting some of your existing customers or users plus some people who have similar problems but who don't use your product yet.

Conduct the focus group session

You'll need an experienced facilitator to run focus group session. This person should know how to set up an open, friendly and relaxed atmosphere during the session. He or she needs to lead the discussion and be able to deal with common problems, like group thinking, leader domination or social pressure. Ask open ended and engaging questions. Respect and value everybody's opinion. Record a meeting and keep track of time.

Analyze results

After a session, you'll need to analyze results. Analysis needs to be done in respect of problem statement you had in the beginning. All questions answered? What actions can you take according to the feedback you received? What trends you noticed? What edge cases were the most interesting? Pick your way to present results of a focus group, but be sure it includes:

  • list of participants
  • their short description (bio)
  • questions asked
  • the matrix of answers (participant / question) 
  • major findings
  • actions to be taken as a result of a research

Common problems with focus group research

What people say might be very different to what they do. 
The main idea of a focus group is a discussion and exchange of opinions. While actual users behavior might be different. One way to resolve this problem is to include "a do" element into focus group session.

Being in a group of people may influence individual behavior due to social pressure.
People might behave very differently when alone and when part of a group. As we all seeking social acceptance - focus group facilitator should make sure every person in a session feels comfortable to express his or her personal opinion.

One person could dominate the group.
A natural leader might arise during the session. This person might majorly affect group dynamics, for good or for bad. An experienced facilitator is able to ensure equity for all participants and opportunity for all opinions to be heard.

One or few irrelevant participants might compromise results of a research.
Due to relatively small number of participants (6-10) presence of even a couple of irrelevant people might influence results of a research. Pay special attention to recruitment of participants, especially if some rewards are foreseen. Best if people that come to focus group session are motivated by an opportunity to solve their problems - helping to develop the product.

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Wikipedia

Things to consider for a focus group research

Do, not tell

Consider having focus group session split into two parts. During the first part, you will focus on some activities, such as: using a website or a mobile app. And during second part you will discuss the group problems and ideas related to the activity. This will allow you to observe users during the first part and get an insight into their thinking process in the second part.

Spot opinion makers influence majority

You know the theory about different user types: early adopters, early majority, late majority, laggards. If you'll be lucky to have one or few early adopters or innovators in your focus group you might spot how they influence other potential users of your product. In other words, you may observe your product advocates in action and better understand what key elements make them opinion makers.

Ability of a group leader to influence judgments and beliefs of others

Despite this is one of the issues during focus group session - you can still learn something useful from such situation. You might notice arguments that leader uses to convince other group participants to agree. Consider using this information for designing your product's marketing message.

In the following presentation, Bob Thomas speaks about "Five Arguments Against Focus Groups - And How To Overcome Them"

In the following student video you can see a bad and a good example of a focus group:

Online focus groups

Modern technology allows to conduct focus group research online. You can gather in one virtual room people from around the world.  It could be much more time and cost effective, but it also has major disadvantages.
Pros: relatively inexpensive, may bring together people from different locations, you can do those much more often.
Const: technology failures, unable to control the dynamics just the same way as in person, can't effectively observe the "do" part.

Read more about focus groups:

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