What’s Wrong with Focus Groups and How to Fix Them

Summary: Focus groups are innapropriate as a research technique to gather usability or user experience requirements. This is due to the fact they are opinion driven and not behavior driven. As a research tool they have a place in market research or early on “market idea” testing. As a way to influence usability or user experience projects, they are useless and misleading. To fix focus groups, they should be either: a) Abandoned in favor of ethnographic field studies or, b) Blended with behavioral research aka user interviews and observations to provide richer insights. 

Focus Groups: The problem starts with their origins

Focus groups started out as a post WWII market research technique at the birth of modern product marketing and consumerism. The idea was to discover public opinion in order to influence sell-ability. Think Mad Men (the Netflix TV show about the advertising industry)…

(image above of a focus group on the Netflix’s special Mad Men)

The Gallup organization in the 1960’s improved surveys and focus groups with better question formation aimed at remove bias when gathering opinions. However, this advertisting and marketing history of the technique means that focus groups are ultimately biased toward influencing purchase decisions instead of listening. User experience focuses instead on listening, observing and then designing for those needs.  

What’s wrong with the Focus Group in UX research?

As Pine & Gilmore said in “The Great Lie: Focus-Pocus” (2001): “With focus groups, the medium is the mistake”.

Since usability research is focused on capturing consumer or enterprise behaviors, focus groups are considered the wrong research technique for UX. If you are a seasoned UX practitioner you ought to cringe when you hear the term, and for good reason. In UX you are trying to influence user behavior. Instead focus groups leave you with a handful of opinions, that you can do little with in your design. 

Focus groups are often plagued by group dynamics; that means one strong voice overpowers all the others. Good moderation is crucial to weed out group dynamics when conducting focus groups. We’ve seen focus groups conducted so poorly (this is a common problem) that many teams end up with sloppy, and biased data. Worse if your user research ends at focus groups, you’re missing the ticket in UX best practice. 

The problem with focus groups for UX is summarized by American Anthropologist Margaret Mead, the grandmother of Ethnography (culture study):

“What people say and what they do are two different things!”. She added, “What people think they do and actually do, are different as well”.

Only behavioral observation and “living with the natives” or day in the life, “walk in my shoes” studies give you the opportunity to observe what people actually do!

How should you approach gathering user insights instead?

We have established that asking users their opinion about a design or navigation is wrong. Instead we need to know how they actually use or want to use the design.

There are two objectives in UX research:

1) Find out how users actually use your design. This requires a usability test (a hands-on way for users to play with a design without any guidance or steering from you). 

2) Find out if your design has what they want in the first place. This requires a field study (a 1:1 interview set in their work environment with their crutches, cheat-sheets and familiar tools, memories or observable phenomenon).

Blending UX research techniques with focus groups yields a fuller, richer picture of user behavior and user opinion. In most cases we skip focus groups in favor of the richer insights from field studies and ethnography. In cases where stakeholders expect a focus group, at Experience Dynamics, we have blended the techniques and the results are powerful. 

Want to learn more? 

Usability testing case study on how we helped Family Policy Program improve comprehension by 115% on their website.

Field study case study on how we helped Pendleton Woolen Mills determine key ecommerce conversion priorities

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