Many user experience professionals cringe when clients want to do focus groups. In UX we extol the value of user research with individuals, either in usability testing or field studies, where we observe and interview individuals in the context of their tasks. Focus groups seem like a flaky, unreliable marketing activity. Unfortunately, because of our disdain for focus groups we sometimes extend that disdain to any research activity that involves a group of people.
Why Don’t We Like Focus Groups?
In UX we highly value observing the behavior of individuals in their natural context. Focus groups provide the exact opposite. They reveal what people say in a group out of context of their typical environment.
What People Say
Focus groups usually gather feelings, attitudes, opinions, and preferences; but they can’t tell us about behavior. We can’t rely much on what people say they do, because so much of what we do is done automatically without much conscious thought. So it’s difficult for people to accurately talk about what they do, out of context. That’s why we like to observe people in the context of performing their tasks. It’s more accurate, and it’s easier for people to show us what they do.
In a Group
Being in a group has its limitations:
- Group dynamics often influence individuals to go along with the group instead of speaking their own minds. They often say what they think will sound good to the group, and they may not feel comfortable speaking honestly about certain topics.
- A few outspoken people often dominate the discussion, while others remain more silent.
- You get much less information from each person than you would in individual sessions.
- Group sessions are not useful for evaluation, because it’s hard for people to evaluate a design or prototype unless they can try it out themselves, which usually isn’t possible in a group.
Out of Context
Focus groups bring people out of their usual context into an unnatural environment. We don’t get to see their usual behavior, the tasks they perform, their tools and technology, their environment, or the people they typically interact with.
Group Sessions Can be Useful
Because of these disadvantages with focus groups, we tend to overlook the value of any type of group research session. However, group research sessions can be valuable. Even when we are specifically requested to conduct focus groups, we don’t have to conduct traditional, marketing focus groups. We can modify them to make them more useful.
Why Conduct Group Research?
Group sessions provide some advantages over individual sessions:
- You save time and money by meeting with many participants at once.
- Group sessions are a useful way to quickly gather initial information about a topic, before going out to do individual user research sessions. For example, you could learn about a process at a high-level by having a group of employees each talk about their role in the process.
- Interaction between participants can spark discussions that might never be revealed in individual interviews. For example, a group of employees from the same company may have a more productive discussion about their work than if you held individual interviews with each of them separately. Because they all know each other and have things in common, they may talk about things together that they would never bring up to you, as an outsider.
- In group sessions, you can have participants work together in small groups and listen to their decision making and reasoning. For example, you can do group card sorting to hear how participants make decisions about how to group the cards.
In addition to group discussion, you can break up a group into smaller groups or give them individual activities.
The Entire Group
Discussing topics as a group takes advantage of the group dynamic to hear different perspectives, to get consensus, to debate, or to hear about different parts of a process.
Breaking into several smaller groups allows individuals to work together on activities that would be unwieldy to do with the entire group. As they work together, you can listen to and observe their decision making. You can then have each group present their results to the entire group to generate further discussion.
Another option is to have the participants each perform an activity on their own and then present it to the group. This is effective with activities that require thought and are easier to do alone. For example, you could give the participants time to draw diagrams of their process, and then you could ask them to present their drawing to the entire group. You get the advantage of getting each person’s individual perspective but also with the advantage of group discussion.
Any group activity becomes difficult to manage with too many participants. More than ten participants are usually too much. If there are more than ten people that need to be involved, it’s better to schedule multiple sessions.
Dyads and Triads
Market research uses terms like dyads and triads to describe group sessions with two and three participants. Groups of these sizes have different dynamics than a large group. They combine some of the dynamics of individual interviews with those of group sessions. In user experience, dyads (sessions with two participants) or triads (sessions with three participants) make sense when there’s a natural relationship between those people. For example, if you’re researching the car buying process, it might make sense to interview a husband and wife together. Or if three employees perform different parts of a related process, it may make sense to talk with them together to understand the process and how their roles relate.
Alternative Group Research Activities
In addition to group discussions, there are many creative and unique activities that you can use to gather information about the users and their tasks, and to get user input into the design. Instead of describing these techniques in detail, each of which could be its own article, I’ve provided links to read more about each technique.
Group Card Sorting
If organization of information and gathering common terminology is your goal, group card sorting is a quick way to gather that information. You can break up the group into smaller sub-groups of two or three participants each. They then work together to sort pieces of information on index cards or post-it notes into categories and sub-categories, and then name each category. For more information, see: http://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/card-sorting.html
Similar to card sorting, you can have sub-groups work together to group related items on post-it notes and then label those groups to create affinity diagrams. Afterwards, the entire group can discuss the themes that emerge. For more information, see: http://www.usabilitybok.org/affinity-diagram
Drawing or Modeling
Breaking the group into small groups or individuals and having them illustrate or build a model of their ideas, concepts, workflows, or processes is a great way to get insight into their thought processes and mental models. After each person presents their drawing or model to the group, discussion is facilitated by having these concrete items to talk about. For more information, see: http://uxmag.com/articles/creativity-based-research-the-process-of-co-designing-with-users and http://johnnyholland.org/2011/10/storyboarding-ux-part-3-storyboarding-as-a-workshop-activity/
Individuals or groups can create collages from a set of provided images to express their feelings about a particular issue. The collages then can be described and discussed. For more information, see: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/02/06/collaging-getting-answers-questions-you-dont-know-ask/
You can give the participants assignments to do before the group session, such as writing about or taking photos of an experience, creating drawings, or creating collages. Because they do this outside the group session, it allows more time for presenting their work and discussing it as a group. It also brings in a little bit of each person’s real experience outside of the conference room. For more information, see: http://johnnyholland.org/2010/05/not-to-prime-is-a-crime/
Several sources provide creative group activities to provide input to design problems. Gamestorming, a book by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo provides more than 80 group games to encourage creativity and generate new ideas. The site Design Games also provides a number of games with complete directions about how to play them.
Group Sessions as a First Step
Group sessions with users or stakeholders are an efficient way to get high-level information about subject matter, users, tasks, and processes. With participatory design and design games, you can get user input into the design. Ideally, group sessions shouldn’t replace individual observations and interviews with users, but they are a good first step to gather the initial information to understand the basics before going out to conduct field research.
Group photo courtesy of Kennisland on Flickr under Creative Commons license