Digital Focus Groups
Bringing together a group of people whose interests and knowledge are relevant to your website or online service can be a great way to get feedback, identify and solve problems, and increase your understanding of your audience and the impact your product has.
In this post I'll outline some benefits of holding a group workshop with people who are actual users of your website, online tool, service or content; and talk about the type of activities you might include.
Unlike a traditional focus group run for market research or to explore brand identity, a workshop to explore web & digital content, functionality and user interface design needs to be strongly focused on exploring the participants real needs and behaviour in use of digital tools - not a discussion centred around their perception and opinions.
Benefits of group workshops
Although it can be harder to manage, document, and analyse than other methods of customer research, an in-person session with a group of people can be extremely worthwhile:
- Particularly where your service is for a specialist audience - you get a few hours of sustained attention and problem solving from a group with highly relevant domain knowledge and experience.
- Workshops can be a great opportunity for stakeholders from within your organisation to see and be part of the customer research process.
- Workshops help to develop the relationships and knowledge within the group of participants involved, and embed the website or service being looked at within their practice.
- The group can be involved in not just giving feedback and testing the website but also in reflection, analysis, prioritising and problem solving. With other types of customer research (eg using online surveys and feedback capture tools) its very difficult to enable participants to have this level of engagement and interaction.
- Workshops can form part of a co-design process which may be required where the project or service is to be driven by external stakeholders rather than a by a design team.
A workshop might run for a couple of hours through to a full day depending on what's practical and the questions to be answered. I've found 12 participants works well - its enough people to be able to include a range of interests and levels of experience, and gives the option to work in pairs or smaller groups for some of the session.
It would be perfectly possible to run a workshop with a group of remote participants using online collaboration tools - and I'd recommend being open to this where its important to get the input of these particular people.
Some issues that you'll need to manage include:
- Results from a single group session will almost certainly be unrepresentative of the website's audience as a whole. You'll need to be getting input from your audience from a variety of sources, taking each with a grain of salt and using all of your research to build an understanding of your audience's needs and behaviour.
- Needing to allow for different personality types - introverts, extraverts; and different learning styles & activity preferences - doing, seeing, listening, talking, drawing, writing.
- Getting feedback from 12 people in a group just won't be the same as if you worked with each person individually. You need to accept they'll influence each other to some degree and adjust your approach for analysis and reporting approriately. Consider also conducting lab-style usability testing with a different set of participants using a more controlled approach.
- The effect of one or two people with very strong opinions on the rest of the group. I've seen this have a very polarising effect where others in the group react to one person's very harsh criticism of the service under discussion by taking a strongly opposite stance. Be prepared for this and try to minimise its impact through facilitation and by setting up the session to start with individual and smaller group activities. This will give the other participants more to base their own feedback on (rather than just reacting to another's opinions) and gives you some feedback from before any polarising incidents. When strong differences in opinion do come up, take time to talk through everyone's views before moving on to the next activity or discussion point.
- Think about who will record and summarise discussion - for example if you break a group of 12 into pairs or small groups for some activities. If participants rather than a facilitator do this, they'll likely bring their own bias to what is written down, and may go off track. It may be worth having several facilitators available in order to get clear output from breakout group activities.
Session design and activities
The activities and session plan will depend on the time you have and the range and type of information that you're looking for. But to get the most benefit from working with a group, I would always include:
- Some individual pen-on-paper activities at the start of the session. This can help quieter participants warm up, gives a pool of ideas for use later in the session, and gives you some data from before the participants have begun to cross-pollinate.
- Some experiential activities - such as usability testing,
where you ask participants to complete a task using a website or
prototype, "thinking aloud" as they go. These should be recorded using
screencapture (see below for details of recording software) or an audio
recorder for non-digital tasks such as a paper card sort.
These experiential activities have a dual purpose - firstly, to develop a context which is grounded in what the website's users actually do - their actions, not their opinions - to base the rest of the workshop on.
They also give participants who haven't used the website recently a chance to familiarise themselves; give you some recorded evidence of how people use the site, and a feel for the language they use while doing so.
- Some reflective activities - ask participants to reflect on workshop activities, and on their prior use of the website individually, in pairs and in larger groups. This can be used to tease out in more detail the actual use cases - what was the reason or purpose behind an action taken in using the website.
- Some generative activities - brainstorming ideas, prioritising issues, and proposing different ways to solve problems identified by the group.
Usability testing in groups
I've done website usability testing in the past with individuals, pairs, and groups of up to 5 people all using a website together. I think that all these approaches have validity - as long as the results are treated appropriately. In real life, people often use websites together. Some may also prefer to participate in this way rather than complete tasks by themselves with an analyst watching.
Screen recording software
Although its useful as part of the activity for participants to summarise the outcome of tasks, its also extremely valuable to record tasks done online for more detailed analysis later on.
I always make sure that everyone knows before the workshop that we would like to record parts of the session. At the start of the session, I ask each person to choose the level of privacy they want their recordings to have (eg only the workshop analyst has access, commissioning organisation has access, or open access including public sharing of clips).
[Edited below 20 February 2015]
For a group workshop where participants will be working on their own laptops, recording software options include:
- OpenHallway - cloud based software - other than the Java plugin, there is no software to install, and recordings are automatically uploaded. Although this is older software with some issues (I wouldn't rely on it for working with non-technical folks in an unmoderated situation) it makes managing the recordings much easier than with other recording tools I've used for workshops.
- Snagit - recording tool for Windows / Mac OSX
- iShowU HD - recording tool for Mac OSX from http://www.shinywhitebox.com/
- Camstudio for Windows - http://camstudio.org/
[Amended September 2016]
More recently, I've been using Techsmith Snagit exclusively for recording during workshops. It is not free, but simplifies the process.