Rebecca Cox - UX Designer
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Digital Focus Groups

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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:

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.

Potential pitfalls

Some issues that you'll need to manage include:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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.
  4. 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:

[Amended September 2016]

More recently, I've been using Techsmith Snagit exclusively for recording during workshops. It is not free, but simplifies the process.