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Focus groups: explanation, example and step-by-step plan (2024 update)

In this article, we explain what a focus group is, how to recruit respondents for it and how to conduct it yourself. We also share with you a sample topic list so you can get started with it yourself. 

What is a focus group?

A focus group or focus group interview is a research technique used to gather in-depth insights and opinions from a specific target group. For this purpose, between 6 and 12 respondents are invited to talk about a particular topic. A moderator leads the focus group and asks questions to obtain relevant information. Focus groups are often used in market research, but they also have an important role in user experience research.

The role of focus groups in user experience research

Focus groups play a crucial role in understanding users' needs, expectations and experiences. This also makes them at once a super interesting tool to use when designing products, services or websites. Focus groups enable companies to better tailor their products and services to the needs of the target audience, thus improving the user experience.

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When do you use a focus group?

UX research can be used at three different stages in the development process. Below, we discuss the role of focus groups in each of these phases.

Focus groups in the exploratory phase

In the exploratory phase of UX research, focus groups are used to gain in-depth insights about the needs, wants and expectations of potential users. Through open discussions and exploratory questions, the focus group can help identify key themes, discover new insights and generate ideas for product development.

Focus groups in the validation phase

In the validation phase of UX research, the focus group is used to validate user feedback and reactions. The aim is to check whether the developed concepts, prototypes or designs match the needs and expectations of the target group. Focus groups are often used in concept testing.

Focus groups in the optimisation phase

In the optimisation phase of UX research, focus groups are used to gain insights around a specific service or product. The aim is then often to gather detailed feedback that can contribute to one of the next improvement steps. For example, the focus group can be used to test (the idea of) new features, but also to identify potential problems. Unlike in user testing, focus groups often invite existing customers.

Advantages and disadvantages of focus groups

Organising focus groups comes with advantages and disadvantages. We list the main advantages and disadvantages of focus groups for you below.

The three biggest advantages of focus groups

  • In-depth insights. Similar to in-depth interviews, focus groups offer the opportunity to gain in-depth insights about participants' opinions, experiences and perceptions. Focus groups involve interaction among respondents. The interactive setting encourages open discussions and the sharing of personal perspectives, allowing researchers to gather valuable information that is difficult to obtain through other research methods.
  • Synergy and group dynamics. Group dynamics in focus groups can lead to synergy and new insights. The interaction between participants generates different viewpoints, ideas and suggestions. Sharing experiences can also give insight to the participants themselves and make them aware of perspectives they might not have considered before.
  • Fast results and cost-effectiveness. Focus groups can be organised and conducted relatively quickly, giving researchers quick access to results. Compared to interviews or user tests, focus groups are often more cost-efficient, as multiple participants can be reached at the same time.

The biggest drawbacks of focus groups and how to overcome them

  • Influence of dominant participants. In a focus group, dominant participants can control the discussion and influence the opinions of other participants. This can result in an unbalanced contribution and affect the representativeness of the data.

To overcome this disadvantage, the moderator can actively intervene by encouraging participants to share their opinions, by asking specific questions to certain participants and by ensuring an equal distribution of speaking time. It can also help to strike a good balance between introverted and extroverted participants by taking this into account already during recruitment.

  • Social desirability and group thinking. The presence of other participants may cause some participants to adjust their opinions or make their answers socially desirable. This can result in distorted data and a lack of honest feedback.

To overcome this drawback, the moderator can create an open and supportive environment where participants are encouraged to speak freely. Conducting online focus groups can also be considered to overcome this.

  • Limited generalisability. Focus group findings cannot be generalised directly to the whole population. Because focus groups have a limited number of participants, the results may be subjective and not representative of the broader user group.

To overcome this drawback, researchers may choose to conduct multiple focus groups to gather a wider range of perspectives. It is also possible to use other research techniques to test the findings. These include questionnaires, in-depth interviews or user tests.

Tips for recruiting respondents for focus groups

The quality of your research is dependent on the quality of the respondents. In order to achieve good results, it is therefore important to think carefully about recruitment. In this article, we will go into detail about recruiting respondents. Below we give some tips specifically for recruiting respondents for focus groups:

Tip 1: Recruit respondents who have actually used the product
Are you conducting a focus group to determine how users experience a particular product or service? Then make sure they have had the opportunity to interact with the product. For instance, you might consider conducting individual user tests first, followed by a focus group with the participants.

Tip 2: Take introversion and extroversion into account
It is advisable to take participants' personalities into account when recruiting, where recruiting on introversion and extraversion can add value. To identify these personalities, you can ask questions such as "Do you get energy from surrounding yourself with other people?" or "Do you prefer to be in a large or small group?".

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Tips for moderating focus groups

Tip 1: Create a safe environment.
Creating a safe environment is essential to encourage participants to speak freely. Start the session by clarifying expectations and emphasise that all opinions and perspectives are welcome. Encourage participants to listen to each other, respect each other and value each other's opinions, even if they disagree. Be alert to any dominant participants and make sure everyone gets equal speaking time

Tip 2: Ask clear and non-directive questions.
Asking clear questions is essential to gain applicable insights during the focus group. Start with open-ended questions to invite participants to speak freely and share their own perspectives. Then use targeted follow-up questions to delve deeper into specific topics or seek clarification. Use non-directive questions as much as possible. Be flexible during the focus group and be prepared to adjust questions based on the group's reactions and dynamics.

Tip 3: Active listening and summarising.
As a moderator, active listening is always crucial. Summarising key points can avoid ambiguities and give the impression that you understand and value respondents.

Topic list example and interview guide

Make free use of our topic list example and interview guide for conducting focus groups.

Download topic list and interview guide

How to conduct focus groups?

Focus groups can be conducted either online or on-site, depending on the needs and capabilities of the study.

Conducting online focus groups

Conducting online focus groups is often faster and easier to set up than on location. In addition, it has the advantage that respondents participate from an environment they feel comfortable in, which reduces the likelihood of group thinking. Here are some tips on conducting online focus groups:

  • Choose a suitable online platform for the focus group, such as User Sense's platform.
  • Provide a stable internet connection and test the technical aspects beforehand.
  • Send participants clear instructions on how to participate in the online focus group.
  • Provide a quiet and well-lit environment in which the moderator and participants can concentrate.
  • Use interactive tools, such as polls or chat features, to increase participant engagement.

Pro tip: if you use the respondents and/or User Sense's tool, the above items will automatically be set up for you.

Conduct focus group on location

It is of course also possible to conduct a focus group on location. This can be either at the office or at an external research location. When conducting focus groups on location, it is good to consider the following things:

  • Choose a suitable location that meets the needs of the focus group, such as a meeting room or a dedicated research room.
  • Provide adequate seating and comfortable conditions for participants.
  • Provide audiovisual equipment, such as a projector or large screen, if needed.
  • Provide sufficient facilities, such as drinks and snacks, to put participants at ease.
  • Provide clear signage and instructions for the venue so that participants can easily find where they need to be.

Analysing focus groups

A lot of time can go into analysing focus groups. In general, analysing online focus groups is easier because tools like User Sense have analysis capabilities in the platform. Below, we have summarised the steps to follow when analysing focus groups for you:

  1. Automatic transcription or transcribing yourself. To facilitate the analysis of focus groups, it is important to have a transcription of the recorded session. Platforms such as User Sense offer automatic transcription functionality, converting speech to text.
  2. Coding and identifying themes. Coding the transcription is a crucial step to identify important themes, patterns and topics. Go through the transcription systematically, marking and labelling relevant fragments that relate to specific topics or themes.
  3. Analyse and summarise. After coding the transcription, it is time to analyse and summarise the marked excerpts. Identify patterns, trends, salient opinions and insights emerging from the focus group.
  4. Interpretation and reporting. The final stage of analysis involves interpreting the insights gathered and preparing a report. Make sure the report is clear and cut key snippets from the recordings to create a highlight video that reflects the essence of the research. Download an example of a UX Research Report.

Step-by-step plan when conducting focus groups

  1. Purpose and planning. Define the specific purpose of the focus group and draw up research questions. Plan the session, define participant criteria and select the right location and time.
  2. Recruit and select participants. Identify potential participants who are representative of the target group. Invite them to participate in the focus group and ensure a balanced and diverse composition of the group.
  3. Prepare materials and facilities. Develop a topic list or discussion guide to structure the session. Ensure that all necessary materials, such as audio or video recorders, notebooks and writing utensils, are ready for use.
  4. Facilitate the focus group. Introduce the purpose and rules of the focus group, create a relaxed and respectful atmosphere, encourage participants to speak freely, ask open-ended questions and ensure equal participation of all participants.
  5. Active observation and documentation. Observe the interaction and dynamics of the group, take notes of key points, comments and non-verbal cues. If possible, record the focus group session for accurate analysis.
  6. Transcription and analysis. Transcribe the recorded session to textual format, identify themes and patterns in the collected data. Use analysis techniques such as coding to discern key insights.
  7. Report findings. Process the analysed data into a clear and concise report. Present key findings, supported by quotes and examples from the focus group, and use them as a basis for further decision-making and action points.

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