Posted by: bbannan | February 23, 2012

Thoughts on Focus Groups – Bonnie-Elizabeth

Focus groups are a qualitative data-gathering technique more associated with product marketing than instructional design.  Often lampooned (see, for example, the Snickers shark focus group commercial or this comedy sketch mocking the group-think problem of focus groups), the focus group seems to be more of a punchline rather than a serious methodology.  Of course, given Kuniavsky’s painstakingly detailed instructions for running a focus group properly, it’s quite easy to see how one could go awry in the hands of an inexperienced researcher or moderator.  In retrospect, I chuckled at his calling focus groups “easy[]” at the chapter outset (p. 202) after going through the detailed instructions for microphone setup (p. 225-226) and moderator skills (p. 227-236) – how difficult it is to suppress the urge to give yes-I’m-listening-to-you signals to the participants takes that out of the ballpark of “easy” for me!

 Given the number of people volunteered to cover this particular chapter and my penchant for procrastination and turning things in at the absolute last minute, I am sure that everyone has a good primer on the substantive content of Chapter 9 at this point.  Rather than expound on the salient points of the chapter, I thought I would speak a little to my experience and a situation in which I intend to make use of the techniques that Kuniavsky details in “Focus Groups” in my professional life.

 Not being an educator or instructional designer by trade, I often find myself struggling to relate to certain aspects of our IDD curriculum, and I often do not have opportunities to practice what we learn.  It is rare that I can apply any methodology exactly as described in an academic text, whether the issues is budget, time, or organizational culture  However, in reading Chapter 9, though, it occurred to me that I was getting ready to undertake an exploratory focus group of sorts myself, I just didn’t realize it.  The timely discovery of Chapter 9, quite frankly, has also made me aware that if I’d proceeded without its guidance, I would have made a number of mistakes.

 Last Monday, I inherited a group within my organization that increased number of people that I manage from 4 to 30.  While I know and have worked with these new-to-me folks for years, my view of what it right and wrong with their present structure is based entirely on an outside view and does not at all reflect what the existing personnel see as right and wrong nor does it address their professional aspirations or any suggestions that they may have.  In reading through Kuniavsky’s commentary on when focus groups are appropriate and for what they can be used (pp. 202-204), I realized that this would be a near perfect fit for what I need to do.  I am at a beginning stage where this data will help inform the path the department takes and what changes to prioritize (Kuniavsky, p. 201-202).  I am interested in the present state of the department and what the employees value and are motivated by (Kuniavsky, p. 203).  This particular group is easy to separate into homogenous populations of appropriate size (Kuniavsky, p. 209-210) by years of experience and practice area.  I don’t need any statistics or to be able to generalize this information beyond this target group.

 Had I not read the “Focus Groups” chapter, I would not doubt have walked into this experience unprepared.  I wouldn’t have had a guide.  I wouldn’t be prepared to deal with reticent participants or have tactics for dealing with the hostiles.  I fully intend to use the identify-write-prioritize-discuss technique described on pages 232-233.

 I would love to tell you that this process went swimmingly, and I have enough data to set about designing a great professional development program and career track for my new employees, but I have not yet had the opportunity to conduct my focus groups yet.

 I think my major takeaway from this has been that all of these techniques are tools that can be useful when judiciously applied and that it can be helpful sometimes to look beyond the formal instructional design contexts.  Any data gathering technique used inappropriately is going to be unsuccessful, and I think that the focus group suffers from its unfortunate reputation because it is misused due to its low cost and seemingly easy practice.

Additional resources:

In terms of resources, I felt that the chapter spend a lot of time detailing preparing for and actually putting on the focus group but glossed over the data analysis piece.  To that end, here are some resources that address what you actually do with the focus group data collected:


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



  1. In your post, you mentioned that it’s difficult for you to relate to certain aspects of IDD as you aren’t an ISD by trade. So I thought I’d share a time when I conducted focus groups for the purpose of instructional design.

    Five to six years ago I was a graduate assistant for the Training Department of a state university. When I started in the department, they already had a certification program for administrative assistants. It had been so successful that they wanted to created a second certification program. One of my projects was to complete the Analyze phase for an IDD project that would ultimately lead to the design of a series of courses to build this new certification program for administrative assistants. Because of the success of the first program, we fortunately had access to a pool of individuals who could help us to design the second program. With my supervisor, we conducted a series of focus groups along with individual interviews of administrative assistants’ supervisors. My research lead to the development of a competency model which would be further worked on to create the second program by the following year’s graduate assistant. Again, the easy access to a very specific target group is what allowed us to be successful in conducting the focus groups.

  2. I have had my first experience conducting a focus group, unfortunately it was before reading Kuniavsky’s chapter on how to conduct one. The searching I did beforehand did not put things into perspective like Kuniavsky’s chapter did for me. I think I did fairly ok but will definitely be using a script the next time I have an opportunity to do another one. If you are not fully prepared for a focus group, things can quickly go down hill.

    Good luck with running your group, Bonnie!

    Jennifer – I would really be interested in hearing more about the focus group you conducted from an IDD perspective. The intention of my focus group was also to define training requirements for the analysis phase of development but at times it became more of a critique of the software we were building the training for. I did provide questions in the beginning to get the conversation started but with some of the software issues they were currently dealing with, it made it hard for them to think of it from a training viewpoint than a software re-development perspective.

  3. Have you had your focus groups yet? How did they go? It would be interesting to hear if your take on them has changed and how “easy” you found them. Ha Ha

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