Posted by: bbannan | February 21, 2012

1+1>2 or 1+1<0 — the Use of Focus Groups – Ying Wu

In Chapter 9 of Observing the User Experience, Kuniavsky discusses Focus Groups, one of the qualitative user research methods that are sometimes used in software or web site development. Focus group is unique and different from individual interviews or surveys in that, it is conducted in an environment where the users are interviewed and observed together as a group, led by an moderator, discussing and sharing their opinions on topics chosen by the researcher.

Because of the interactive nature of Focus Group, it has received contradictory views on its ability to yield valid results for researchers. For novice instructional designers with little user research experience, whether to choose Focus Groups as a methodology to conduct user research is critical and difficult. Kuniavsky states that, knowing when to use focus groups is one of the keys to using them successfully (p202).

In observing the User Experience, Kuniavsky elaborates on how to conduct and analyze Focus Groups, and it’s not the primary goal of this reflection to reiterate those in details. This reflection will explore situations when Focus Groups can beneficial or detrimental to your user research, so that you can have general criteria to follow and then make wise decision on the choice of methodology for user research.

What are Focus Groups

A focus group is a form of qualitative research in which a group of people are asked about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a product, service, concept, advertisement, idea, or packaging (Henderson, 2009). The purpose of focus groups is not to infer, but to understand, no to generalize but to determine a range, not to make statements about the population but to provide insights about how people perceive a situation (Krueger, 1988)

Unlike individual interviews, focus group is conducted by recruiting a group of participants with homogeneous background, scheduled to be interviewed at the same time in the same location. According to Krueger (1988), focus groups must be small enough for everyone to have the opportunity to share insights and yet large enough to provide a diversity of perceptions. Kuniavsky suggests four groups with 6-8 participants in each group, but no fewer than 4 participants each.

When 1+1>2

According to Kuniavsky, in software or Web site development, focus groups are used early in the development cycle, when generating ideas, prioritizing features, and understanding the needs of the target audience are paramount (Kuniavsky, p201).

Focus groups are convenient to conduct and time-efficient in that, you can get much more input from a group of participants than from one individual participant in a given time period. They provide a unique opportunity to see reality from the perspective of the user quickly, cheaply, and (with careful preparation) easily. (p202)

Group discussion produces data and insights that would be less accessible without interaction found in a group setting—listening to others’ verbalized experiences stimulates memories, ideas, and experiences in participants. This is also known as the group effect where group members engage in “a kind of ‘chaining’ or ‘cascading’ effect; talk links to, or tumbles out of, the topics and expressions preceding it” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002)

Kuniavsky states that, “since focus groups can act as brainstorming sessions, it’s possible to achieve a synergy in which participants generate more ideas together than they could have come up with on their own” (Kuniavsky, p203).

When 1+1<0

However, Douglas Rushkoff argues that, “focus groups are often useless, and frequently cause more trouble than they are intended to solve, with focus groups often aiming to please rather than offering their own opinions or evaluations, and with data often cherry picked to support a foregone conclusion” (Rushkoff, 2005). Because of the setting of Focus Groups, participants may swiftly alter their opinions to please other participants or the moderator, sometimes unconsciously. Focus groups can create situations that are deceptive both to the participants and to analyst who literally interpret statements made in focus groups rather than extracting their underlying attitudes (Kuniavsky, p205).

Focus groups are not good for usability information in that, they can’t show you whether they can use a feature in practice. Nor are they statistically significant like a survey. In other words, there is no guarantee that the proportion of responses in the group matches that of the larger population of users (p204). However, focus groups can give you a really good idea of why the audience behaves how it does. Once the “why” has been determined, it can be verified through statistically significant research, such as a survey. (p204)


Lambert and Loiselle (2008) have integrated focus groups and individual interviews data for their study on patterns of people’s cancer information-seeking behavior, and found that the “convergence of the central characteristics of the phenomenon across focus groups and individual interviews enhanced trustworthiness of findings”.

With the above said, this reflection is not designated to write in stone if Focus Groups is appropriate to serve as a methodology for all user research or not. Depending on the variables in the research such as research questions and target audience, researchers may find that results from focus groups can intrigue more insights into the topics than individual interviews, thus make “1+1>2”; whereas others find that the results are null, or even worse, misinterpret focus group results, making “1+1<0”.


Henderson, Naomi R. (2009). Managing Moderator Stress: Take a Deep Breath. You Can Do This! Marketing Research, Vol. 21 Issue 1, p28-29.

Kuniavsky, M. (2003). Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

Lambert, S. D., & Loiselle, C. G. (2008). Combining individual interviews and focus groups to enhance data richness. Journal Of Advanced Nursing, 62(2), 228-237. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.2007.04559.x

Lindlof, T. R., & Taylor, B. C. (2002). Qualitative Communication Research Methods,2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rushkoff, Douglas, Get back in the box: innovation from the inside out, New York: Collins, 2005



  1. Cute title, Ying. I feel that I read the chapter in Kuniavsky about 2 months too late. At my job, one of my customers proposed using a focus group to gather information for the analysis phase of a WBT project. Since I did not have a clue at the time what the best method of gathering the information we needed was, I agreed to this method. Although we did get good feedback to begin our WBT project, there were a few things that came out of the focus group that I would rather avoid given that my focus was only on training. I think a focus group is a great idea when developing a website or application but using it to define training requirements is not always the best approach (1+1<0). I also agree that you should be well prepared before conducting a focus group. Although I had prepared questions and a general idea of what I wanted, creating a script would have helped me. I also would have only one or two sessions of one hour, the focus groups I conducted ran for 90 minutes and were held 4 times during the month of February. For the WBT project, I think one or two sessions would of been sufficient.

    I feel that focus groups are more suited to website and application design since it gives the user a chance to air out their frustrations with the end project. I had a hard time steering the conversation to have them development training requirements than go in on how unhappy or confusing some parts of the software was for them. Dealing with silence is also something to get used to. I had to supress the urge to ask leading or other questions during these periods of silence. It is best to not say anything at times to let the participants have a moment to get their thoughts together before commenting. The interactions in the group setting did provide good information for the WBT and new information for a possible upgrade to the software in the future.

    I think that I will use focus groups in the future but after my own expeirience and reading the text, I will be better informed on when to use this in WBT or another kind of development.

  2. You bring up some excellent points on how focus groups can be misused or manipulated. I have vague memories of focus groups long ago; they left me wondering why the people who were chosen were chosen. They did not seem to me to be people who would give criticisms or who have insightful commentary. Perhaps, they were “cherry-picked,” as you say.

    When my group briefed our focus group and our interviewees beforehand, we stressed that if they simply told us how wonderful our project was, that they were not doing us any favors. We WANTED their criticism because it helps us to make a better product. Hopefully, we avoided your well-taken point about predetermined conclusions.

    In dealing with high school children, we found that once one child was praised and thanked for offering an insightful or helpful criticism, the other kids got in on the act. We have gotten some excellent information from our groups. Might not be that easy with adults, though.

    I think you have provided an excellent summarization of the many pitfalls of focus groups. Some extend to interviews, too, e.g., people do not want to give information which is harmful, embarassing, illegal, etc.

    So, I believe that focus groups can be very informative and helpful. But, one must be careful not to fall into the 1+1<0 scenario whcih you describe.

    Really enjoyed your post. 🙂

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