It’s time to lose focus

Out-of-focus focus group

Focus groups are probably the user research method that most non-specialists are familiar with. They are also still among the most common user research methods used. This, despite their many flaws.

Their continued popularity is possibly down to their simplicity. We have all read about focus groups, and we can probably all imagine running one.

But their seeming simplicity is also what makes them so dangerous.

In the past, I’ve known of focus groups where the facilitator asked leading questions. Then in their report, they skewed the responses even further towards the answers they wanted.

But there’s an even greater problem than that. Even if you’re aware of your biases, and avoid asking leading questions, focus groups are difficult to get right. Philip Hodgson explores the reasons why focus groups fail to deliver.

The fundamental problem is that, in spite of what conventional wisdom tells us, it is not the voice of the consumer that matters. What matters is the mind of the consumerat matters. What matters is the mind of the consumer.

For me, the biggest problem with focus groups is that they actually put the participants into a totally alien situation. You take them into a room with coffee and biscuits, and a bunch of strangers. And then you expect them all to tell you about their real lives, but through an unnatural conversation with total strangers. It makes no real sense.

This isn’t a source of genuine insight. It’s a recipe for groupthink.

People begin to say things they think will impress the other participants. Loud voices dominate, and introverts recede from view. Everyone acts in a totally different way to if they were by themselves. You get no insight into what people do when they’re, genuinely using your service in their real context.

I’ve been involved in a project that had used focus groups prior to my involvement. One of the main findings of the focus group was that participants were surprised and confused to discover that different participants were experiencing different things. But they only discovered this by being part of the focus group. In other words, this ‘problem’ was created by the focus group.

Put people into an unnatural situation, ask them biased questions, get junk information back. Don’t be surprised if focus groups perpetuate your problems rather than solve them.

There may be times when it’s useful to use focus groups as a research method. But often they’re just a vanity exercise.

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