Posted by: bbannan | February 25, 2011

Focus groups – Faizan

*Please excuse the delay in posting which was my delay not Faizan’s. – Brenda

When thinking about design research, most people have heard of or maybe even participated in a focus group. Focus groups are a popular way for those looking to gain insight in to why a target audience thinks or acts in a certain way. Retailers use focus groups to understand more about consumer habits and car manufacturers have been known to use focus groups to determine what conveniences buyers are looking for. More recently, Domino’s Pizza, widely known to have been poor in quality and service began using focus groups to improve their products as well as create a bluntly honest yet effective marketing campaign to help restore their brand integrity. But focus groups aren’t just about surprising pizza eaters on a tomato farm – if used properly they can be an valuable source of important information to help guide your design and development process.

The first thing to remember is focus groups are one of many research tools in a designer’s toolbox and determining if it is the right tool to use is important. Kuniavsky describes focus groups as being good at getting people’s “attitudes and perceptions.” In my experience, understanding what motivates, deters, or interests my audience and what they value provides the initial guidance and direction for design. It is usually the focus group from which we are able to extract the principles of our design.

When conducting research in preparation for designing a training program or WBT, during focus group interviews – the discussion usually spurs thought and as the session progresses and the information we are able to gather becomes more relevant and useful. In a focus group it’s also easy to quickly pick up on common issues and trends among your target audience.

In a recent focus group I was involved in, our clients expressed the issues they were having in using new accounting software. As the conversation evolved and more people began voicing the same concerns, it became quite clear that not only was it the software they were having trouble with, but many of the users lacked the basic accounting principles necessary to perform their job function.  In this case, the focus group revealed an issue that has a major impact on our instructional design approach and the scope of the project – but not incorporating what we learned would ultimately doom our training efforts.

I wish I had a chance to read Kuniavsky’s section on creating a discussion guide for focus groups, prior to conducting one in January. Although, we were able to get some good information – it took a long time to get it and the discussion shifted out of scope at times. Of the characteristics he describes for focus group questions, getting specific answers was important in helping us extract solid and applicable design strategies.

A quick search of internet resources will provide you with a plethora of information, from video recordings of actual focus groups to articles and books. Among the recent articles I found, I noticed a trend of design researchers (i.e., Apple) moving away from traditional focus groups to rely on other forms of discussion or information gathering. Today, so much information is gathered about our consumer, internet, and product usage habits behind the scenes by software that automatically tracks what we do. Through that data and information, a lot of insight can be gained, however I still see the value in a focus group discussion especially in the beginning stages of design.


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  1. Faizan,

    Thanks for posting the resources on how current companies are shifting their focus group approaches. It is quite clear that in this day and age our society is very web-savvy and accustomed to using that medium when discussing their thoughts, opinions, and attitudes. It only makes sense that marketers would tap into web 2.0 tools and technologies to reach consumers as a better method of predicting their acceptance. The Shoot the Focus Group article mentions how “Reaching out online, through surveys or IM, shields people from the influence of a group and better enables different departments to eliminate blind alleys.” I can see how this would be so true and how individuals would feel more comfortable expressing their true opinions without being influenced by what others are saying or feel peer pressure to respond in a certain way. The cost benefit of using the web to gather the type of data traditionally gained from focus groups is also very appealing and I can see how this method will continue to gain popularity. It will be very interesting to see the creative ways market researchers use the web to gather data in the future.


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