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Focus groups: the importance of human psychology in design processes

If we take the word of no less than Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design, focus groups just ensure that you create bland products. However, focus groups are one of the most low-budget and less time-consuming user research techniques, since they allow you to gather data from several people simultaneously.

When you're not Apple, and you're running under short budget constraints, this surely is a very strong point in favour of focus groups.

I believe that’s why, when discussing with other design colleagues, focus groups seem to be the most common technique used in newly born design departments at IT companies that have just started investing in UX.

However, I’ve noticed a problem in the way companies are using focus groups: it's being used in all stages of the design process, from the initial phases of concept exploration right until the graphic interface validation. As we say in Portuguese: "for everything and a pair of boots” (you will have to visit us here in lovely Portugal to better understand this one).

This article will cover in depth why exactly that is a problem, but let's just say that it's the equivalent of trying to build a house using only duct tape. Sure, it can be a useful tool in some construction work, but depending on the part of the house you are working on, you will need other tools and materials. You can’t just simply put together a house with duct tape and expect it to be solid. It will collapse, plain simple. Common sense, right?

In the same way, while in some contexts focus groups can be useful to give you some direction, in other cases they are just a waste of resources and a trap that will make you think that the risks you are taking are less severe than what they actually are. You'll believe that you have user validation, when, in fact, you don’t.

So, in what contexts are focus groups the adequate tool, and when should you look for other options in your toolbox? In order to answer that question, let’s look at what focus groups are, what are their origins, and at different aspects of both human psychology and usability/user experience.

What are focus groups?

Focus groups can be defined as moderated group discussions that can be done in a more structured or unstructured fashion. In the first case, the moderator keeps a stricter agenda assuming a more directive posture, while in the second, the moderators let the discussion between the participants flow with more freedom.

But the distinct features of focus groups are the fact that they take place in a group setting (usually between 4 and 12 participants), rather than in a one-to-one setting, and that they are based on discussion, not in tasks and/or observations. These two aspects are the crucial points to have in consideration when evaluating the possibility of using, or not, this technique.

Here's when it becomes crucial to have some awareness about psychology and sociology in order to best evaluate when to use a technique or not.

Human factors

One of the characteristics that defines us, as humans, is that we don’t have a clear notion of why we act the way we do. Also, we don't have a particularly good capacity to envision how we would act in hypothetic scenarios.

Discussions provide us unique insight into a person's feelings and emotions in a certain moment, and a good talk is the best window that we have to access people's perceptions and motivations, things that are almost impossible to unveil with such richness if you just observe their actions. But discussions are a very, very, poor indicator of how people act and how they move along in the world.

Another human characteristic is that we behave and communicate differently in group than we do in private. Instincts and behaviours such as an individual inclination to be more dominant or more submissive; our shared desire to be accepted; social, professional and other hierarchies existing between members of a group... all these factors play a huge role on the dynamic created in a group, influencing the course and results of a discussion.

I will not even try to go into how each of these factors can influence results, as that would be material for a dozen master theses (you can, however, have a glimpse of it in this article). The fact of which we should be conscious is that the input that we gather from a group discussion is radically different from the one we would gather from a one-to-one session.

The origins & history of focus groups

Focus groups first came up on the '30s, in the USA, as a tool to evaluate audience response to war propaganda in the context of the World War II. This context is important to understand the focus group's potential and the goals for which it was designed to achieve.

Propaganda is, per se, something that takes place in a group setting, since it happens in the public realm, and the way an audience subject reacts to it is influenced by group factors, such as the ones that were mentioned above. Given that it is a best practice to test in an environment that best replicates the factors at play in real-life situations, it makes sense, in the context of propaganda, to use a technique that allows to incorporate all those variables.

Another fact about propaganda is that it’s not intended to convey specific accurate information, nor is it an interactive process. Propaganda is intended just to trigger an emotional response and it’s unidirectional. There are no users in propaganda, there is an audience. An audience passively receives the message and reacts to it, there is no interaction in the sense that the audience doesn’t need to perform actions in order to unroll the piece. In that sense, focus groups were conceived to collect information regarding the sentiment of the people in face of the presented piece of propaganda.

The technique was later largely used by the marketing field. Beyond assessing reaction to war propaganda, it was used to access consumers reaction to product advertise or to brand discourses and look & feel. This was a good fit, since classical marketing strategies rely on the same logic as propaganda (unidirectional, reactive, not interactive, emotional, and not accurate).

When the field of digital products started to develop, its professionals turned to the existing research and testing techniques on the well-established marketing field. Focus groups were among them, as well as many others, like personas (which we've already reviewed in a previous post).

But, in my opinion, both marketing and UX for digital products have a few core differences that make focus groups have a limited potential when applied to product design. In order to better understand those differences, we need to take a more in-depth look at what usability and user experience are.

User Experience & Digital Products

User experience can be defined as the subjective experience that someone has while using a product, and usability as the quality of a product of generating the desired experience in the person using it. That’s basic knowledge, I know. But there is a key point that I want to put emphasis on. It’s the verb "to use”.

Digital products are inherently different from propaganda and advertisement in the sense that they imply that the users perform a set of tasks and actions on/with them with the purpose of achieving a goal. It’s not just about what the user feels when faced with a product. It’s also about how the user is able (or not) to operate it.

Going beyond superficial definitions of usability, we can identify the different dimensions that compose it:

  • Usefulness: the degree to which a product enables users to achieve their goals;
  • Efficiency: the amount of time it takes for a user’s goal to be accomplished accurately and completely;
  • Effectiveness: the degree to which the product behaves in the way that users expect it to and the ease with which users can use it to do what they intend;
  • Learnability: the amount of time taken by the user to operate the system to some defined level of competence or the speed with which infrequent users can relearn the system after periods of inactivity;
  • Satisfaction: the user’s perceptions, feelings and opinion about the product.

Due to the discursive nature of focus groups, which are not action oriented, and the fact that it’s a technique done in a group setting (when in most cases users will be interacting directly with the product individually), this technique is able to access only the last dimension of usability.

So...when to use it?

As Norman says, focus groups are a rather poor method for evaluating interface usability. Their role is not to access interaction styles but to discover what users want from the system.

Focus groups don’t provide useful data regarding the usefulness, efficiency, efficacy or learnability of a digital product or interface. As such, they should not be used in the validation of design deliveries that have a high focus on those aspects of the user experience.

Focus groups should not be used in Wireframes validation.
Focus groups should not be used in Graphic User Interface validation.

They will offer you extremely low-quality and counter-productive insights in those steps.

“Should that navbar be on top or on the left side?”

Focus groups will not answer that.

“Should that button be larger, or in colour XXXX, or…?”

Once again, Focus groups will not provide an answer here.

Focus Groups are, however, useful in validating design deliveries that concern the satisfaction dimension of usability, such as mood boards; especially if you are working in a product that has a highly collaborative or social aspect.

The technique can also be a somewhat useful tool to collect feedback in exploratory steps of the creative process. User interviews, or even better, context inquires, are my recommendation - since they eliminate the group factor and allow you to see users in action.

But if you don’t have enough time or budget for that, focus groups are better than nothing and can help you to have a better notion of user's needs. Just be sure that you have an expert doing the moderation, so you don’t fall into the trap that Jonathan Ive warns about:

“It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design"

You need to have a moderator that can see beyond the words, and see the user needs beyond the user requests.

Expand your toolbox and invest in processes

So, wrapping it up... There is no inherently better or worse tool. There's nothing wrong with focus groups, but you shouldn’t be using only one tool of your toolbox for everything. And it’s not about using as many tools as there are either.

It’s all about knowing the strengths and weakness of each technique and, as such, when and how they can complement each other. That’s why a good product design process is crucial for guaranteeing that the project has the most efficient budget and time frame, and that the product has the best possible quality.

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