In this IGNITE session from UXPA2013, Centralis' Kathi Kaiser shares three case studies that illustrate how focus groups, an often-hated traditional market research technique, can be modified for user experience/design research.
Hi, I’m Kathi Kaiser. I’m from Centralis, a UX consultancy in Chicago. We inform our design work with multiple research tools, including focus groups. Lots of UX people hate focus groups, but to me, that’s like hating a shovel when the earth is hard, or hating this scary thing when your wheat is too short.
Focus groups are just a tool, and the trick with tools is having the right one for the job. They shouldn’t be used to assess usability – they just won’t get the job done. In fact, our hatred of focus groups comes from the fact that we’ve been asked to use them to answer questions to which they are poorly suited.
But UX is a lot more than usability - creating a great user experience requires asking all sorts of research questions, like, ‘What do people want?’, ‘How do they do things?’ and ‘What do they care about?’ We need a broad range of tools to address these different types of questions.
And luckily, we UX folks are creative – we can adapt old tools to new purposes. Focus groups are an old, familiar tool, created by ad agencies to get feedback on traditional advertising, which is in itself dated. It’s time we thought about how we can update this classic method to address the research needs we encounter today.
So that begs the question – when are focus groups the right tool for the job? In our work, we’ve identified three research goals that are well served by focus groups, and I’d like to share a case study for each. The first goal is Attitudes – focus groups are great for exploring users’ attitudes and opinions.
In our first case, the client was a luxury cruise line building their first-ever online booking engine. What would motivate these high-end cruisers to book online, rather than with their travel agent? Ultimately, we would do usability testing on a prototype, but to ground our initial design work, we needed to understand these users’ attitudes toward the cruise booking process.
So we did some focus groups, but with an interactive twist. First, we had everyone in the group use select competitor sites to book a cruise *individually* , on their own laptop. This part of the group is silent – each person is doing their own thing, getting some immediate, hands-on experience with the topic we are investigating.
Afterwards, the facilitator led a group discussion focusing on the competitors’ different approaches. What content did people value? What features were most helpful? Which overall direction was most compelling? This isn’t usability – we’re not evaluating the detailed design of the sites – we’re using them as stimuli for exploring attitudes and opinions.
Here are a few tips for ensuring that interactive focus groups work well: first, it’s best to give people specific targets to look for, so they explore the areas of the sites you care about. Also, choose sites that represent different approaches to the same design problem. The subsequent discussion should focus on the overall design strategy, not detailed execution.
Focus groups are also a great tool for brainstorming. Fruitful brainstorming depends on having participants who are highly motivated; otherwise, they may not generate enough interesting ideas. We tend to prefer using groups to brainstorm for business-to-business projects, where the professionals have more at stake than consumers, and tend to be more motivated.
In this case, we were designing a system for architects around how they manage their relationships with other professionals when building a home or commercial building. The existing system was a bit dated – it was, well, mostly paper. To kick start our design process, we needed some ideas for what the new system *could* be.
So we started by seeding some – we presented our initial ideas to the group. Brainstorming from scratch is pretty hard; it’s much easier to react to ideas and build upon them. Some of our ideas were sketches and flows, while others were just paragraphs – low fidelity works best here. We weren’t really looking for feedback on the ideas themselves; we just wanted to get the conversation going.
And the best way to get participants to react is to show them something crazy, but act like you’re serious about it. After a few minutes, someone will say, “Are you kidding me? That’s nuts!”. Then the group can explain why the idea is crazy, and share other ideas for what would make more sense. Voila! Your group is brainstorming.
A thirduse for focus groups is co-creation. This is where you put the group to work building a model of their process for a task that you can’t easily or efficiently observe. It’s not participatory design – you aren’t designing anything – you’re exploring how a process works. You start by recruiting people who have just completed the process you want to study.
In this case, we needed to know about how people approach replacing the windows in their home. We thought we knew how the process gets started, so we started by drawing it on the whiteboard, step by step. For each step, we invited the participants to correct our understanding – to explain how wrong we were, and to fill in the blanks.
Over the course of about two hours, the group built a new model of the window replacement process. Each individual described their own steps, considerations, and the resources they had used. We used stickie notes and laminated cartoon cutouts to capture the model on the wall, with all its interesting variations. At the end of the group, they all commented about how fun it was.
So to re-cap, we’ve used focus groups for UX in three key ways: For exploring attitudes, for brainstorming and for co-creation. Were focus groups the *best* method in each of these situations? Well, it depends. Certainly it’d be better to understand what architects need or how windows are replaced with a long-term ethnographic study.
But the key advantage of focus groups are that they are efficient. You can learn a lot over the course of just a few hours, in a controlled setting. Ethnographic observation or individual interviews would certainly provide more depth, but would require a significantly higher investment. Focus groups are great for quick, efficient research to jump start a longer UX initiative.
I hope I’ve given you some ideas for when focus groups can be an effective tool for UX research. There are many research questions where focus groups are a bad, bad choice. So should focus groups be in the UX toolkit? Absolutely. The trick is knowing how to choose the best tool for the job.
Adapting Focus Groups for User Experience (UX) Research
How to keep focus groups in the
UX toolkit without getting hurt
Focus Groups : Usability :: Scissors : Mowing the Lawn
Focus Groups : Usability
But UX > Usability Alone
And old tools can learn new tricks…
A is for
The ABCs of Focus Groups
Case Study #1:
Attitudes about Booking a Cruise
Step 1: Give them Hands-on Experience