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Focus groups

How to conduct effective UX focus groups

If you’ve ever watched a dog show, it probably seemed confusing at first: there’s a bit of running, a bit of eating, and a bit of prodding before dogs in each group are sorted into first, second, and third place. It’s similar to what happens when you conduct user surveys: the users conduct their own internal judgments before distilling them into easily quantifiable answers.

The problem is, just as there’s a tremendous amount of evaluation involved in a dog show before the winners are chosen, there’s a great amount of reasoning in users’ minds before selecting a simple multiple-choice answer. And that reasoning can be where the most insight lies for UX teams.

When users are given the ability to talk about their experience, they often provide a deeper understanding of what they are trying to accomplish and how they are using your product. When it comes to conducting UX focus groups, it’s important to have direct feedback from the users as they use your prototype to determine how to improve your product or feature. However, similar to judging dogs, running focus groups is easier said than done. But we’re here to help.

What are focus groups?

A focus group is a group of individuals that provides feedback about your product. For instance, if you build an app for keeping track of your pet’s vaccinations, you may conduct a focus group with pet owners about how they interact with the app, how they feel about the app’s interface, and what would prevent them from using the app. Normally, focus groups are conducted in person, but they may also be conducted online. 

What makes focus groups different from user surveys is that the group interacts with one another rather than being asked to assess a product individually and without external input. During the focus group, a moderator (or two moderators) will pose a question to the group and the group is allowed to discuss the question. The focus group’s discussion should be recorded for analysis later on. Focus groups are less expensive to conduct than one-on-one interviews, but are also more difficult to manage. Without proper management, a focus group can spiral out of control and can be affected by bias that results in practically useless information.

What is a UX research focus group? 

A UX research focus group is similar in format to a more general focus group, but deals only with the user’s experience. Where market research focus groups determine if target customers care about a certain product idea, UX research focus groups are concerned more about how users interact with a product and what they’re responding (or not responding) to. A product demo is an essential part of a UX research focus group because you’ll need to be able to see how your users use the product so you can improve your product based on that information.

How to conduct focus groups effectively

Because focus groups are both time and cost intensive, it’s important to get as much out of them as possible. Conduct a focus group ineffectively and you’ll find you’ve spent a few hours listening to a group talk without having any of the answers you wanted by the end of the session. 

Here’s how to make the most of your focus groups:

1. Determine the goal of the focus group

If you don’t know what you want out of your focus group, there’s no point in conducting one. Before you do anything, consult with stakeholders and write out a set of goals and questions so you can then craft your focus group questions to meet those objectives.

2. Have a prototype prepared 

If there’s nothing for your users to interact with, they can’t give you information on how to improve your product. And don’t rely on mockups or wireframes: there’s a big difference between theory and practice. While your users may tell you they’d prefer swiping, for instance, you may find that when they’re interacting with your product, they actually tend to tap. 

3. Create a list of questions 

This is easier said than done because you need to avoid leading questions while still gaining the information to answer your objectives. You’ll need to develop questions in four categories of UX:

  • Usability and performance - These questions aim to learn more about how users feel about your product, how much they know about it, and what issues they’re having so you can develop better workflows.
  • Interactions design - These questions aim to uncover how users really interact with your product.
  • Visual design - These questions ask how your users feel about the visuals and how well the visuals are communicating what you’d like them to communicate.
  • Content understanding - These questions examine how your users understand the content of your product.

4. Use a moderator

A moderator is crucial for the success of your focus group. They keep people from dominating the conversation, encourage the conversation, and know-how to clarify questions or rephrase them to gain better answers. Follow-up questions are important to gaining more information about questions and discovering nuances about your product. 

It’s also helpful to have more than one moderator. You’ll want to watch how users interact with your prototype, and it will be difficult to watch all members of the group at the same time. A good moderator is a facilitator and will know not to interject or participate in the discussion itself.

5. Start with an icebreaker

A focus group can feel as comfortable as the first day of high school. It’s important to start with an icebreaker or two so the group feels safe sharing their feedback and joining in the discussion. For instance, you could play a game of “never have I ever” or have everyone share their favorite musical groups.

6. Take notes

You should, as mentioned before, be recording the entire focus group, but it’s smart to also take notes that can be easily referenced both during the focus group and after. These are also useful for turning into bullet points of insights to share with stakeholders and others across the business. 

Pro tip: It’s important that the moderator isn’t the one responsible for taking notes, as they need to be paying attention to what participants are saying and how they’re acting. Assign a notetaker instead.

7. Find a suitable place

When conducting a focus group, location matters. The room should be quiet and private, without glass walls (which can make the focus group feel like they’re in a fishtank). Make sure there are a lot of snacks and caffeinated beverages, and make sure it’s not too cold or hot in the room. You’ll also want a prototype for each user and a way to monitor how the users are interacting with your prototype. If you’re hosting a remote focus group, be sure to send details out well ahead of time along with calendar reminders.

8. Choose a good time

Don’t hold your focus group at 8 am. No one wants to get up that early, and if your participants are tired and cranky, their feedback will likely reflect that. Instead, find a time of day that is convenient for your focus group. And keep the entire session to about two hours. Any more than that, and your participants will be tired and disinterested. You should allot a certain amount of time per each of your questions so that no one question ends up dominating the conversation. 

UX focus groups are vital for understanding your product through the lens of the user’s experience. They can help you refine your product and gain valuable, nuanced feedback that can’t be gained through something like a survey or a one-on-one. In a group setting, members of the group can bring up viewpoints that may not be shared by everyone or that may be further refined by others in the group. 

The UX focus group really underscores what’s working and what’s not in your prototype. While they can’t provide statistical or easily quantifiable information, UX focus groups are ideal for understanding your target users and your market. When the focus group is conducted properly, you’ll come away with a greater awareness of who’s really using your product and what they really need.

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