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Main Steps for Running Successful Focus Groups

· UX Research

UX research is about getting in touch with users and learning about their needs, expectations and frustrations. One technique for doing this, that proves to be very useful, is running focus groups.

Even though, focus groups are not sufficient for basing your decision making processes on – because they are about people 'telling you what they do' rather than 'showing you what they do' – they can provide excellent insights that you can use as guidance for further research.

At Travel Republic we always start a new design project with a focus group. It helps us gathering information about users' expectations, users' likes and dislikes, or updating old findings from past research.

Main steps for running a successful focus group

1. Gather business requirements

This is an important starting point for every UX research project. It helps you prepare properly for your workshop, connect with people from different teams, PR your work and make it more valuable.

Nielson Norman Group UX workshop guide

Nielsen Norman Group UX Workshop Guide

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Tip: Organise a meeting with the involved stakeholders and ask all the questions you have: purpose of the project, assumptions, questions they might have for users. You can write down everything on post-its and divide them in 2 categories: 'what you know' and 'what you don't know'. In this meeting you will already start thinking on your methodology and formulate the research questions (what you want to find out at the end of the workshop).

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2. Recruit useful participants

Participants recruitment is another step of the focus group preparation. You can do the recruiting yourself or collaborate with an agency to speed up the process.

Based on the project, you need to create a profile for potential participants - include anything that will help you find people that match your target audience and can give you valuable insights about the topic. The more accurate a profile you have, the more likely it is that you will recruit useful participants.

Some key questions to be taken into consideration when identifying target participants are:

  • What are the size and the composition of the group? (If it is possible to choose group size, go for between 6 to ten participants).
  • What are the working background and experience of the participants? 
  • What are their experiences with your devices? (e.g. first time users, advanced users). 
  •  Are there dependencies between the participants? (If possible avoid boss/employee relationships)
  • Are they actual customers? (Avoid recruiting real customers to reduce any type of bias)
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Tip: Always recruit at least one back-up participant in case anybody cancels on the day. Also make sure the incentives you offer are sensible but enough to encourage participation. (For a 2 hour-session, £100 is a reasonable amount for good participants to attend your sessions.)

3. Prepare a script or discussion guide

Once you have all the business requirements, you can start thinking about the best activities you can use to gather quality insights.

The more interesting the activities, the more involved the participants will be and more useful information you will get from them.

Script structure:

  • Agenda
  • Welcome/introduction
  • Icebreaker (to have the participants settle)
  • Workshop activities (a combination of various exercises based on the project)
  • Wrap up (answer any final questions)

4. Prepare bookings/logistics

The type of workshop being presented will influence the room(s) that is/are chosen. The facilities of the room should be able to comfortably accommodate the participants while taking into consideration the needs of the moderator.

Also book an observation room for stakeholders, clients, anyone who would like to watch the session. You can also stream the workshop.

Points to consider:

  • Capacity 
  • Audio/visual requirements 
  • Computer accessibility 
  • Lighting and Acoustics

All resources required for the seminar are acquired or sourced at this stage.

Checklist: • Script • Laptop • Flip charts • Stationery – markers, pens, notepads (workshop toolbox or the 'magic box' as we like to call it at Travel Republic) • Handouts • Name tags.

6. Conduct the focus group

Session structure:

Start every workshop with an introduction: explain the OARRS (Outcome Agenda Roles Rules (meeting topics)) and give participants the opportunity to introduce themselves.

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Tip1: At the beginning of the session ask the participants to write their names on a sticky paper and stick it to their clothes where it can be easily seen. It will help you and all the participants interact better.

Tip2: Write the aims of the workshop on a flip chart and hang them on the wall so you can refer back to them throughout the session. This is especially useful when the conversations get a bit ‘foggy’.

Then it comes the icebreaker, which is essential for the participants to get comfortable with each other.

E.g. It can consist of an exercise in pairs where they can interview each other and then present the other to the group.

Focus group main tasks: You can use a combination of traditional, new and lean methods to gather qualitative insights from users at this stage.

Here are a few examples:

  • Sketching exercises (individually or in groups)
  • Brainstorming
  • Card-sorting
  • Buzz group
  • Worst vs best case scenario

Time management is another important factor that you as facilitator need to pay attention to.

Allocate an approximate time length for each task and make sure you don't go over time if you want to have time to work on all the exercises.

There may be cases when the participants are very interactive and you get lots of interesting feedback about a specific topic. In that case you can decide on spot that one topic might be more interesting than others.

7. Analyse and document the qualitative data

Now that you found so many useful insights, it's time for the analysis. Take a few hours to do a detailed analysis and document all the data.

I have to say this is one of my favourite parts of the entire process. I like reviewing, categorising all the interesting findings and coming up with recommendations.

There are a few tools out there that can help you store the qualitative data. At Travel Republic we use Airtable. Let's say it's a better online version of Google Sheets and it only allows view access.

Airtable screenshot

7. Prepare a report

On the 1st meeting with the stakeholders, you should have understood who is interested in which area, so make sure you include/answer all those questions in your presentation.

For instance I know that one of the POs is always interested in what users think about competitors. Others like to see the profile of the participants at the beginning so that they are confident the data is relevant for the segments they are focusing on.

The tools we use for presentations are Google slides for quick reporting and Prezi for more complex, high-impact topics.

When moderated correctly, focus groups can be a powerful tool in product development. However, as stated above, they should not be the only source of information about user behaviour. In interactive systems development, the proper role of focus groups is not to assess interaction styles or design usability, but to discover what users want from the system.

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Nielsen Norman Group - Planning Effective UX Workshop Agendas