UX researchers and focus groups

Before we even dive into the topic, let’s first acknowledge upfront that the term “focus groups” is not as widely used among UX researchers, nor is the practice of UX researchers interviewing groups of people together, in one setting. Indeed, even though UX researchers are in the business of qualitative research, the vocabulary is very different from how more traditional market researchers describe the same practices. At InterQ Learning Labs, our teaching philosophy is to bridge all the schools together (UX, in-house/independent qualitative researchers, and ad agency planners). Even though the wording and names may be different, when you boil it down, all these professions are in the practice of studying humans. In-person, online, through interviews and observations. And when studying humans, there are core principles, rooted in psychology that apply to everyone, regardless of whether you call it “human-centered design,” “design thinking,” “qualitative research,” or “planning” – the core skillsets still apply.

In addition to the core skillsets that qualitative researchers need, there are various methodologies that can be applied to study users, depending on the study goals and objectives.

So let’s tackle that, next, because this brings us back to the topic of focus groups. (Or, ideation sessions, co-creations sessions – or whichever term you were taught or are familiar with.) For the purposes of consistency, we will title the methodology “focus groups,” in this article.

In what research situations should you use focus groups?

Most UX designers don’t include focus groups because the profession is centered on an individual’s experience navigating a digital experience (evaluation research). However, focus groups are extremely useful when done prior to the actual prototype testing (generative research), or they can be incorporated as a mixed-methodology (for example, after mobile ethnographies, pulling in affinity groups to see how connected groups make decisions, or prior to in-depth interviews). Before we define scenarios where focus groups are useful, let’s start by defining various types of focus groups.

And so we’re all on the same page – a brief definition: Focus groups, broadly speaking, involve a researcher talking to a group of participants. The goal is not to achieve consensus, but rather to brainstorm, see how a topic spurs a group conversation, and to observe how a similar cohort group (or persona) makes decisions and influences each others’ thought processes.

Here are common types of groups:

  • Traditional focus group: Up to 6 people, in person or online, with a moderator leading the discussion. Many people will say up to 10 people, but at InterQ Learning Labs, we find smaller groups more effective. Usually groups last 2 hours and can be held at focus group facilities, in co-working spaces, or using various online research platforms (or Zoom!) Clients and stakeholders often observe, in a backroom.
  • Affinity groups: Affinity groups may be with a group of 2-6 people. Also called “snowball sample,” an affinity group contains people who know each other – either work colleagues, family members, or friends. An initial person who meets the criteria is recruited, and they invite the other members. These are fantastic when observing and studying how existing groups make group decisions and discuss ideas to reach consensus or weigh the pros-and cons. We love them when studying digital communities, family household decisions, and parent/child dynamics.
  • Dyads/Triads: Though not everyone will cluster dyads and triads under “focus groups,” for the purposes of this discussion, we’re including this since it involves a moderator managing a group. A dyad is two participants and a moderator. A triad is three participants and a moderator. They are typically unknown to each other prior to the group, though they can also be classified as a known group. However, we prefer the term “affinity groups,” if they are related/work together. (See? So many different ways to describe the same thing in market research.)

Next, let’s tackle when you might pull in one of these group configurations in qualitative research.

Generative research: Initial brainstorming, pre-prototype, B2B:

Before the code is written, do you understand functional group needs, how work environments are arranged, what other tech stacks are in place – or – for consumer studies – overarching patterns and needs around the product or service that the digital product covers?

A fantastic way to understand this, at Stage Zero, let’s call it, is by talking to a group of people and conducting ideation and brainstorming exercises. For example, how do security operation centers think about automation? What processes are efficient and where are their inefficiencies? What are big-picture problems that cybersecurity technology companies need to be aware of before they develop a product in this space? So, yes, a UX researcher can set up in-depth interviews and talk to 30 different security analysts and CISOs in 5 cities, or, a researcher can conduct groups with similar job roles and observe how this topic is discussed, amongst industry professionals. Since software isn’t analyzed and purchased by a single person within an organization, doesn’t it make sense to see how a group discusses a product and comes to conclusions about barriers and needs?

The best research mimics real-life scenarios, and that’s where focus groups can be incredibly useful.

Generative research: Initial brainstorming, pre-prototype, B2C:

Here’s another example when focus groups can be useful to UX researchers: Let’s say you work on a digital community product for athletes. You want to understand how to create sub-communities within the app that meets the needs of a specific group (for example, female athletes, transgender athletes, etc.)

You could spend weeks interviewing individuals, but without a group of like-minded people in this community, how will you understand which specific tracking metrics they pay attention to? Do they want to compete digitally, and if so, which milestones matter to them?

You could assemble affinity groups or even focus groups of athletes belonging to this community and lead a co-creation session to understand their unique needs, habits, and step into their world. This initial empathy-building and storytelling that come out of these groups will be the launchpad that the design teams need to start working on prototypes.

Focus groups are an incredible tool –  but make sure you know how to moderate them first!

Focus groups are extremely valuable for UX researchers, when done at the appropriate time in the research process, and when assembled using a methodology that best mimics real-life. For the empathy and story-telling part of the design-thinking research process, a skilled moderator can expertly gather user stories.

However, be aware that moderating a group is an entirely different process than conducting individual interviews. Groups require that the moderator understand how to guard against groupthink, manage unruly participants, keep one person from dominating, ensure that the “quiet ones,” are heard from, and come up with a discussion guide and ideation exercises that will lead to the best insights.

If you are a UX researcher interested in honing your group-interviewing skillset, check out InterQ Learning Labs’ in-person training courses. We focus specifically on the interviewing skills that researchers need to conduct focus groups and internal ideation sessions.

To sum up, key scenarios when focus groups can be used in generative research

This list is by no means comprehensive, but here are some research scenarios when using focus groups in your generative research process will yield better results than interviewing people individually:

  • Initial concept gathering to understand barriers and issues around a topic (be it software, collaboration tools, apps, or services used by a group)
  • As a follow-up to mobile ethnographies or in-depth interviews, when the goal is to first observe people/understand individual experiences and then brainstorm problem solving collectively as a group
  • Ideation sessions, even later in the research process to understand how to further push new ideas/improvements/innovations
  • Any scenario in which groups or teams collectively use a product
  • To study and get new ideas for digital communities, where how members use the platform depends on the input and actions of others

As a reminder, a great rule of thumb is that research should mimic real-life scenarios as much as possible. At any point in your research process, if you realize groups or teams are involved, this is when to pull in those groups together and conduct research sessions; you simply won’t be able to understand how the group interacts by only talking to individuals by themselves.

Ready to learn the skills to conduct focus groups? Check out our upcoming workshops >