Illustration by Simona Toader
When it comes to product design, it’s essential to always remember who will use our products. When we create products, it’s tempting to project our behaviors and reactions onto users and make decisions based on our thoughts and experiences. However, this often leads to a bad user experience because the wants and needs of our users can be different from ours.
When real users are at the center of product design, the outcome is typically much better. That’s why the process of creating a user-centered product should use focus groups for research to show what works for people who use the product and what does not. In this article, we will review one of the most effective tools for gathering feedback about your design from people who represent your target audience—focus groups. Let’s learn more about how focus groups benefit the web design process.
What are focus groups in web design?
A focus group is a qualitative research method that helps UX researchers gather target audience opinions and attitudes about design. Focus groups are typically small groups of people (six to nine participants) who come together to review and discuss a particular design. Traditionally, focus groups are carried out as face-to-face meetings, but it’s also possible to conduct them online through video communication tools like Zoom.
The main purpose of focus group research is to capture respondents’ attitudes, feelings, and beliefs, and to use this information to inform the product design process. Steve Krug, the author of Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, perfectly summarizes the importance of focus groups for research: “Focus groups can be great for determining what your audience wants, likes, and needs—in the abstract. They’re good for testing whether the idea behind the site makes sense and your value proposition is attractive.”
How to conduct a focus group
Now that you have an answer to “what are focus groups?” it’s time to learn how to get the most out of it. Similar to other user research techniques, focus groups deliver the best results when the research team follows a structured approach:
Set a goal
Before starting a session, you should have a clear understanding of what type of information you want to gather. Prepare a script for specific things you want to discuss. Prioritize this list and select a few of the most important topics.
Select people who represent your target audience
Focus group methodology implies that the most valuable feedback comes from people who represent your target audience. But when it comes to selecting participants for focus groups, you need to follow a few simple rules to get the most out of this technique:
- Set clear criteria for participants. Ask candidates to complete a survey, and based on that, you should be able to tell whether or not they fit in the target audience of your product.
- Minimize the risk of bias. Ensure that group participants have little to no prior experience using the product that will be discussed. For the same reason, you need to ensure that participants do not know each other.
Ensure that everyone in a group understands the rules
Before starting a session, you need to ensure that every group member understands how the session is structured and what impact is expected from them. You can explain the goal of the new web design. We are interested in hearing your genuine opinions about our visual design decisions and your interaction experience.
Introduce members to each other
Introduce everyone in a group by name before starting a discussion. This simple introduction will make it easier for people to communicate with each other during the session.
Make sure the group understands the product
Often, people who participate in focus groups have a limited opportunity to actually interact with a product. In most cases, they see a product demo and share their thoughts and feelings based on that information. Ensure that the demo is clear and provides enough information so that group members can understand the product.
Schedule enough time for the session
Focus group sessions typically take one or two hours. Scheduling less time for the session can negatively impact the outcome since participants will have less time to discuss the topics properly. However, it is also important to avoid scheduling too much time per session (three or four hours) because it will be hard to keep participants engaged in the discussion.
Things to remember when running a focus group
Here are a few essential rules to remember when structuring a focus group:
Know when to use focus groups
Ideally, you should schedule a focus group session when you have a concept of a product that you want to send to development. Typically, it’s a moment when you have high-fidelity design assets and want to get an opinion about them from your target audience. The focus group session can help you gather feedback on your design and adjust some design decisions.
Prepare a discussion guide
Before running a focus group, UX researchers should design a discussion guide and validate it to ensure that it covers the topic well. It’s possible to validate the guide without inviting test participants. Simply ask someone from your product team to act as a group participant.
Hire a facilitator
One of the most common issues with focus groups is when one of the participants is more dominating than the others during the discussion. As a result, her or his opinion can influence the group discussion, which often leads to a phenomenon known as groupthink (when participants are swayed by the opinions of others in a group).
Groupthink increases the risk of getting biased results. That’s why focus groups require an experienced facilitator to guide discussions and to encourage participants to get involved. A facilitator should control the discussion and steer the conversation in the right direction to ensure everyone will share their thoughts.
Honor open discussions
Each person in the group should be encouraged to participate in the discussion. It’s worth mentioning at the beginning of the session that when it comes to personal opinions about design, there are no right or wrong questions or answers. Everyone in the group should be able to express their opinions and feelings while respecting the opinions of others.
Ask more open-ended questions
Close-ended questions, like “Do you like or dislike this design?” without any follow-up questions, lead to limited information about a design. But when you ask open-ended questions like “What do you think about this design? And Why?” it can help you reveal deeper insights into a person’s opinion.
Watch body language
Good user researchers should not only ask relevant questions but also watch participant’s body language. It is important because what people say is not always the same as what people feel and what they actually do. By analyzing body language, you can better understand what participants think about design.
Avoid sharing your opinions
Skilled user researchers never share their personal opinions during a design discussion. And they do it for a reason—a researcher’s view can have a negative impact on the group’s opinion about design. By hiding your emotional reactions during the sessions, your findings won’t be negatively affected by the phenomenon known as social desirability bias (when participants want to answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favorably by others).
Take notes during the session
Many things might happen during group discussions, and it’s relatively easy to forget something. That is why it’s recommended that you write down any interesting observations and facts that you can later use during the group results analysis.
Record the session on video
Even with written notes, it can be hard to remember all the information that group members share during the discussion. It’s always better to record the session so that everyone can replay it again.
The video can be used during the results analysis phase to help draw conclusions from the research. Share the video with the entire product team to make them aware of any problems users face when they interact with the product.
Don’t use focus groups as the only method of user research
Focus groups can be a powerful tool for understanding attitudes and opinions, but they should not be the only source of information about user behavior. Focus groups typically aren’t used to uncover deep opinions and behavior because they don’t require an in-depth discussion about the subject. When you want to get a deeper understanding of user behavior, you’ll need to use it together with other user research methods.
Focus groups play an important role in the product design process. They help the product team to collect feedback from the target audience and use this information to improve a design before releasing it to the market. But opinions and attitudes are not always enough for creating a good user experience, and that is the reason why it’s necessary to use focus groups along with other user research methods during the design process.