Posted by: bbannan | February 25, 2011

Focus groups – Windy

*Posting delay mine, not Windy’s. My apologies. – Brenda

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them” –Steve Jobs, (Business Week, 1998).  I don’t know if any of you have come across similar experiences in your user design research, but this quote from Jobs seems to hit the nail on the head, in my opinion. Why is it hard for users to articulate how they will use a feature, but they can certainly tell you if they like it or not? Our author addresses this point when he discusses what focus groups are NOT good for, “first and foremost, focus groups are not a way to get usability information” (pg. 204). So when do you use focus groups versus usability testing? This is one question that came up while I was reading and researching this topic. A good source that succinctly explains the ins and outs between usability testing and focus groups is Focus Groups vs. Usability TestingWhat, When, and Why from Webcredible (2009). Webcredible offers usability & accessibility services for web sites, mobile devices and applications, in addition to providing helpful resources on topics related to user research and user-centered design.

So what are focus groups used for?

Focus groups tell us our target audience’s desires, experiences and priorities; not just what they think about “it”, but also “how” they think about it (Kuniavsky, 2003). Focus groups can give you a clearer picture of your target audience, but they shouldn’t be used to determine how well people use designs. That’s where usability testing comes in to play, focusing on the interactions (Webcredible, 2009). Usability testing, however, can be more timely and costly, which makes focus groups a more practical option for our goals and deadlines this semester to gather perspectives from our users.

One thing to keep in mind regarding focus groups is that they are very functional during the early stages of user-centered design. According to NASAs Usability Toolkit, Focus groups are best used during the requirements and planning stage and work to elicit user requirements and views through discussion. If your team however is in more of the conceptual design stage, other methods such as cognitive walk through, heuristic evaluation, and participatory evaluation may be better suited to elicit results. (View this chart for the full list and a description of each method.) If your team is in more of the Test and Evaluation Stage, methods you might consider (that require low to medium resources) consist of cognitive walk through, heuristic evaluation, participatory evaluation, and user-based testing of design–some of the same techniques suggested for the conceptual design stage. So within your teams this semester, you will have to make the decision if focus groups are best for the results you are trying to accomplish, or if you should incorporate more evaluation-stage type testing as NASA models for us.

Additional Resources:

●     Quick reference for running focus groups

●     NASA: Tools and Resources for User Centered Design (Great Resource for samples and guidelines)

●     NASA: 5 Stages of User Centered Design

If you do decide to go the focus group route, how do you analyze the data? Kuniavsky states that “the two fundamental processes of focus group analysis are collecting data and extracting trends” (pg. 240). This can be an overwhelming process when you have data from multiple sources such as transcripts, quotes, video tapes, etc. To simplify this process for our goals in this course, a good resource is Webcredibles User InterviewsAnalysis Simplified. They suggest that the best way to go through the data is put everything down on paper and then sift through the results to create a final unified story. Post-its and white boards are a great technique to do this, which will help to develop themes and stories. Kuniavsky reinforces these ideas when he states that “Stories are a powerful way to understand the intricacies of people’s experiences. They provide details about people’s assumptions, the sequences in which they do things, how they solve problems (and what problems they have), and their opinions” (pg. 245). Last semester our persona (story) development played heavily into our prototype design and will continue to become apparent through our focus groups and data analysis.


Focus groups are just one tool available to us as we collect user experience research in this course. I’ve provided a summary and good alternative user testing methods from NASA to assist you on your journey.  NASA’s site and Webcredible are great resources, as they simplify the process into chunks based on your stage in user research. Take a look at their formulas for presenting information, as both sites are great examples of sound user-focused design in and of itself.



  1. Thanks for this great collection of resources, Windy. This stuff will definitely come in handy as we flesh out our research plans. I see the point about how our projects are in sort of an awkward stage for conducting focus groups. We’ve already got prototypes (so we’re past the requirements and planning stages), but nobody’s really used them yet, so we’re not in that “how’s it working out” stage yet either.

    I think we’ll try to do one anyway, focusing not so much on our prototype, but on the general idea of our design as a way to confirm whether we’ve stayed on the right path during the design process, based on the upfront analysis we did at the time. If our project was for an actual client, we would still have the reasonable ability to make adjustments to the design based on focus group feedback since we haven’t started “coding” anything yet.

    The Jobs quote is a good one though. I think we should be careful to put too much weight on focus group findings. People *think* they know what they want. But when those wants are translated into an actual product, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll buy it. Someone made a comment to this effect on one of my favorite car blogs the other day: Mazda built their newest generation midsize sedan based on focus groups. After asking car buyers what they wanted, they designed a bigger, plainer, less-sporty car to compete with Accord and Camry. Problem is it’s not selling.

    So it can be tricky to balance this approach with the “visionary” approach of Steve Jobs, which trades some user input for leadership and risk-taking.

    • Thanks for your comments, Philip. It sounds like your group is taking the right approach with using focus groups, focusing on the design and concepts as opposed to the specific prototype. Sometimes presenting folks with the prototype can pigeon hole them into a certain mindset and not allow them to generate new ideas and constructive feedback towards your design. You should get some good feedback and hopefully engage your audience in a way that will bring out synergistic thoughts and ideas towards your group’s design.

      I wonder why mazda’s midsize isn’t selling? thoughts?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: