Mike Propst User Experience

When you "have" to do a focus group

Most UX researchers will parrot the line that focus groups are terrible, and even if they are parroting, they're right. Erika Hall, in Just Enough Research, calls focus groups "research theater."

But often, you'll find that budget and/or time constraints can manipulate your beautifully planned user research into a focus group. Is there anything you can do about it?

As usual, Pentagram and other gatekeeping haters be damned, design thinking (or human-centered design) comes to the rescue. Co-design doesn't just mean working in cross-functional teams in your own organization, it means involving your users. If we truly believe that they know best, then why not involve them?

About a year ago, I got access to a group of young people who were acting as an advisory board to a client. The client made e-learning modules for an urban teen market and we were building the interface and helping with their product design philosophy. The problem with this access was that not only were the kids biased — they had volunteered for the position and were paid a stipend — but when they got together they were effectively a focus group. All of them were smart and motivated, but they weren't always motivated to give the kind of feedback we needed, and we continued to see patterns of one person leading the group (a standard focus group behavior).

Since we met them regularly, I started to give them homework. They put together mood boards and talked about the kinds of sites they regularly visited. Maybe they all colluded, but it didn't matter quite as much because it was an intentional collaboration on their part in this case.

Then we eased into some design thinking exercises, and conducted a design studio workshop. I instructed them to think of the particular details of what made them frustrated with, apathetic to, or unable to operate the current layouts. Then they drew. Standard practice applies here:

  1. We were remote, but I instructed the moderators to give them sharpies so we didn't fall into the detailed drawing trap.
  2. The youth liaison to the company, as well as the product leader and another product manager, participated.
  3. The drawings were timeboxed, then presented and lightly critiqued as a group.

They took pictures and sent them to us, and we did affinity mapping and more detailed analysis after the workshop.

None of this is really rocket surgery, but it's worth mentioning that as long as you have the right participants, any user research should be considered useful and there's a lot of value in being able to "make lemonade."