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Conducting focus groups for a website redesign

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Focus groups are a valuable tool for gaining qualitative insight and feedback from your website audiences. They can be conducted throughout a redesign project as needed, whether at the beginning to identify major issues and gain a better understanding of user needs or later in the process to refine language and gauge reaction to visual designs, imagery and messages.

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Conducting focus groups for a website redesign

  1. 1. Whitepaper 2007 Focus groups are a valuable tool for gaining qualitative insight and feedback from your website audiences. They can be conducted throughout a redesign project as needed, whether at the beginning to identify major issues and gain a better understanding of user needs or later in the process to refine language and gauge reaction to visual designs, imagery and messages. CONDUCTING FOCUS GROUPS FOR A WEBSITE REDESIGN
  2. 2. Copyright 2007 J. Todd Bennett 1Whitepaper: Conducting Focus Groups hy focus groups? We believe in designing user-centric websites. A key to the success of any website redesign project is to understand why people visit your website and what they’re trying to do once they get there. In short, a focus group is a group interview with 10-12 members of a target audience (students, faculty, alumni, etc.), conducted by a moderator. Its advantages are relatively low cost, the opportunity to probe deeper into important issues that arise, and results that are almost immediate. However, you should remember that what you hear in a focus group may only apply to the people in that group and should not be generalized to the greater population. Such generalizations should be made following a survey of a representative sample of the population you are trying to measure. Selecting your groups When recruiting people to join your focus groups, there are a few helpful tips to follow:  Participants should represent your target audience and the group should be as homogenous as possible. Remember, you are looking to speak with the “typical” visitor to your website—not the person who has the most expertise in building it.  Try to avoid recruiting participants with expertise in market research or marketing, unless these people are representative of your target audience.  Turnout for focus groups, particularly with students, can be very low. You may need to invite 20-25 people per group to get your desired size of 8-12 participants. W A great way to explore the minds of your website users is to conduct focus groups.
  3. 3. Copyright 2007 J. Todd Bennett 2Whitepaper: Conducting Focus Groups  Provide an incentive to attend. For many of your stakeholders, simply having input into the design of the new website is incentive enough. For students, an evening session with free food may result in better attendance.  While it’s not preferred, existing campus groups such as committees, department staff meetings, and student organizations could also serve as focus groups. Location Many people think that to conduct a focus group, they need a special facility. This is not true. While special observation rooms with sound and video recording equipment are nice, what you’re after is quick and dirty feedback to move forward on a project. In choosing a location, consider the following:  Choose a room that can comfortably seat 10-12 people, a moderator and a note-taker/ observer.  The room should be free from distractions and private. Participants should feel that they can speak freely, so public spaces should be avoided.  The room should not be so large or noisy that you are not able to make a clear audio recording of the session. Be certain to test you audio equipment in the room before the session to ensure there are no distracting sounds, such as a loud fan.  Participants should be seated in a circle or around a conference table. Remember, this is a conversation, not a lecture.  Be sure the room has good lighting and the temperature is comfortable. Rooms that are too hot or too cold can be a distraction.
  4. 4. Copyright 2007 J. Todd Bennett 3Whitepaper: Conducting Focus Groups Getting started Your group will be facilitated by a moderator. It’s important your moderator have excellent communication skills (speaking and listening) and should not be too close to the project at hand. Your institution’s webmaster or marketing director is not likely to get the same honest responses as an objective third party moderator. It is helpful to make an audio or video recording of each session. If you do, be sure to get the consent of the participants and excuse anyone who is not comfortable with being recorded. Note that video is perceived as much more intrusive and may inhibit responses. Assure everyone that what they say is confidential and their names will never be linked to their comments. The benefit of an audio recording is that it can be transcribed and later used in the content analysis of the sessions. Additionally, whether you record the session or not, you should have another observer in the room to take notes. The observer can make note of non-verbal cues as well as the feelings and emotions surrounding an issue. These notes can also serve as a back-up in the event the audio recording equipment malfunctions. Before the formal focus group begins, it’s a good idea to plan for 10-15 minutes of informal conversation with refreshments. This will allow the participants a chance to become more comfortable in the environment and with the other group members. It will also give the moderator an opportunity to look for any participants who might try to monopolize the conversation or not speak at all during the focus group. Once you are ready to begin, have everyone take a seat around the table. You may choose to have each person introduce themselves by first name before you begin. After the introductions, it is important that you lay the ground rules for the discussion and ensure participants that their “It’s important your moderator have excellent communication skills, both speaking and listening”
  5. 5. Copyright 2007 J. Todd Bennett 4Whitepaper: Conducting Focus Groups responses are confidential. If you are recording the session, you should obtain consent from everyone in the room to do so and excuse those who prefer not to be recorded. Moderating the group As a moderator, it is your role to promote open discussion and to draw out people’s differences. You may need to probe for details or move things forward when the conversation is drifting. You must keep the session focused, which sometimes requires steering the conversation back on course. Moderators also have to ensure everyone participates and gets a chance to speak. You should avoid favoring particular participants and should try to control those who attempt to monopolize the discussion. If someone is not participating, you may choose to ask him/her a question directly. Sample Introduction Script Welcome to our session on [PROJECT]. Thank you for taking the time to meet with us and to discuss [PROJECT]. My name is [NAME] from PLACE that has been chosen by [CLIENT] to [PROJECT]. Assisting me is [NAME]. You were selected because you [AUDIENCE]. We are particularly interested in your views because [REASON]. I’ll start by asking some questions and would like you to respond to them. There are no right or wrong answers. Please feel free to share your point of view even if it differs from what others have said. We do ask that you are all respectful of others’ opinions and give everyone a chance to share their views. We also ask that only one person speak at a time. Because we have a number of issues to discuss, I may have to cut you short and ask to move on. Please don’t be offended. We just need to keep things moving so we can finish on-time. We want you to be as open and honest as possible, so we guarantee that everything you say will be kept confidential in the sense that your name will never be linked to your comments shared with [CLIENT]. However, we would like to record our conversation because it is difficult to write and follow the discussion at the same time and it’s important we don’t miss any of your comments. Do I have everyone’s consent to record the session? If so, let’s begin with the first question. Our session will last about [TIME]. Are there any questions before we begin?
  6. 6. Copyright 2007 J. Todd Bennett 5Whitepaper: Conducting Focus Groups It is also very important that the moderator and observer do not take over the conversation themselves. Your personal opinions can influence participants towards a particular position or opinion. You are there to LISTEN to what the participants have to say. Asking Questions What questions do you ask? The answer depends on what you want to know. If the redesign of your website includes the reorganization of your navigation and content, understanding what people are looking for at your website (including the words they use to describe it) is important and questions should attempt to discover this. You should have about 8-12 broad questions prepared ahead of time. For each of these, you may choose to prepare a series of “prompts” or more probing questions that can be used to get more detailed responses. When asking questions, start with the broadest questions first. To elicit responses, it may be necessary to call on individuals. You may experience several seconds of silence before someone speaks up to answer your question. This is okay and eventually the silence will draw people out. In this case, you should avoid the temptation to answer the question for the group or give examples that may influence their responses. You may also use your prompts to get to deeper responses. These, however are optional. If you’re getting responses that meet your objectives, don’t feel obligated to ask every probing question you have prepared. These are designed simply to stimulate a deeper conversation. If participants respond with short answers, ask them to elaborate. You may encounter unanticipated responses that are valuable to pursue, but be certain doing so does not disrupt the timeline and keep you from getting to other questions that might be central to your project. As the moderator, your role is to ask questions and LISTEN… Avoid the temptation to answer the question or provide examples.
  7. 7. Copyright 2007 J. Todd Bennett 6Whitepaper: Conducting Focus Groups Reporting the results How you choose to report your results will depend on several factors, including the amount of time you have and what you plan to do with the results. In most cases, a summary of your notes or transcripts of the audio sessions will suffice. If you’re very ambitious and have plenty of time, you could conduct a content analysis of transcripts of each session. This would allow you to identify key themes that emerged and quantify your results. Whichever method you choose, remember that you cannot make generalizations about the entire population (“all students feel…”). If your focus groups are a precursor to the kick-off of a project, be alert to any “hot-button” issues that may emerge. You can prevent having your project derailed by internal politics later on by paying attention to issues raised at the start. You may also find that topics are discussed that warrant further investigation. Oftentimes, focus groups identify questions that need to be asked of a sample of the larger population on a survey. Conclusion Focus groups are a valuable tool for gaining qualitative insight and feedback from your website audiences. They can be conducted throughout a redesign project as needed, whether at the beginning to identify major issues and gain a better understanding of user needs or later in the process to refine language and gauge reaction to visual designs, imagery and messages. Focus groups should not be used to generalize to all users and are not a substitute for usability testing. However, when paired with other research methods, well moderated focus groups can help ensure the success of any project.

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