Focus groups are an effective way of evaluating and refining a range of design concepts and prototypes, to encourage an externalisation of the decision making process. However, they can also provide valuable insights into perceptions and preferences of existing or competitive products and can be a useful way of exploring new requirements and desires.
It is critical that the objectives of the focus group are clear and explicit. What new knowledge is hoped to be gained? What do you hope to learn? The clearer the objectives, the easier it will be to design the rest of the session.
Planning, preparation and facilitation
It takes time to organise a meeting, to develop an agenda, a script, prepare materials, invite participants, test the questions, organise a site and agree a date. The session should no more than 3 hours and it is likely that in a 2 hour session, there will be time for 5-6 questions. Questions should be open, enable discussion and should be tested. A script will the session run smoothly and should include an indication of where and how the facilitator should probe further. Skilled facilitation is essential. Either seek training or at least practice first. It is important to create a good atmosphere, prevent any destructive behaviour and encourage participation. Most of all, the facilitator needs to be impartial.
Who to invite?
A good session requires a small, but representative sample of 'expert' participants to discuss a topic. These 'experts' may be potential or current customers (or users), lead users, extreme users or possibly recognised technical experts in the particular field. As a rule of thumb, there should be between 6 and 12 people involved. Sense check that the participants are appropriate for the objectives of the session.
Location, atmosphere and equipment
The room is important - is it comfortable, does it have the right atmosphere and does it set the right tone? Typical materials include notepads, pencils, flipchart, markers, tape, blu-tac™, post-it™ notes, name tags, refreshments and a clock. Recording equipment is essential, including tape or video.
Translating results into action
The focus group is only useful if the findings are translated into action. Schedule a team meeting to review the transcripts and summaries of the focus group or watch the video. Refer to the objectives when drawing conclusions and compare the findings to other research - user observations or interviews.
- Can be expensive, especially if customers are geographically dispersed
- Needs careful and skilful facilitation - some experience in managing group discussions is useful
- Can be beneficial to use external, professional moderators
- Needs significant preparation
- Needs an independent note taker / recorder
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