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4 Steps for Using Focus Groups in User Research

How to use focus groups as a technique for evaluating users' feelings, opinions and preferences

Focus groups are a common market research technique used to gather and evaluate people's feelings, opinions and preferences on a particular topic (concept/brand/product/service etc.). 

This can help identify if/where there might be a gap in a market for something new or a pivot for something already in existence. Generally, user research techniques are required to observe and understand user behaviour, as well as people’s motivations and attitudes.

Anyone with experience in user research will be able to tell you that people’s opinions and feelings don’t always match their observed behaviour. Opinions can vary over time and change from person to person. However, between people, behaviour can remain consistent when looking at tasks, especially within groups of people with similar motivations or experiences. 

1. Consider the difference between opinions, feelings and behaviour

This should be a key consideration when planning your research, as research into opinions and feelings will generally need a larger sample of people to account for the potential of wide variation caused by outliers.

Research into behaviour can be conducted through samples of people from the user group, because of behavioural consistency. 

2. Choose the right method for your learning

Choosing the right method depends on what you are trying to learn. You may want to learn about people’s opinions and feelings on a certain subject, with focus groups being the research tool of choice, measured at specific times in the development cycle of a product or service. For example:

  • At the concept stage of the development cycle for a product/service to generate ideas;
  • You may want to review the brand positioning of a product/service;
  • To identify how it is perceived in the marketplace amongst its competitors.

Note that focus groups should not be used for the iterative development of a product/service. 

3. Establishing what is already known

Emma Boulton (2018) suggests using focus groups at the beginning of a project to establish what is already known. This is not something that I’ve done before, as I tend to lean towards workshops (which I cover in my book User Research) with structured exercises, but I can appreciate the function of them in this context, where focus groups and workshops are two sides of the same coin.

In User Research, I tend to focus on techniques that are used to understand behaviour rather than using focus groups as a methodology, but surveys, which I also cover, are very much in the same vein as focus groups and suffer the same constraints of users’ self-reporting. Thus, surveys also require large numbers of responses to account for wide variation and be useful. 

4. Ensuring focus groups are used in the right context

As with any research method, focus groups can be misused, i.e. not used in the right context. Perhaps the scorn and varied opinions on how useful focus groups are, is because they are a method that tends to be misused more than others, in both user research and market research.  

The skills required to do user research cover planning, execution, analysis and communication, with a big part of the planning based on choosing the right method for a particular context. This isn’t always easy, as there is not one specific technique for each circumstance. Sometimes a technique will need to be adapted to give you what you need, or a combination of techniques may be required.

Whichever is the case for you, by following these key steps you will be able to better understand your users’ motivations, feelings and opinions, even if they don’t always match their observed behaviour.


Further Reading