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Focus groups

Summary

A focus group is an informal assembly of users whose opinions are requested about a specific topic. The goal is to elicit perceptions, feelings, attitudes, and ideas of participants about the topic. Focus groups are not generally appropriate for evaluation.

Benefits

Individuals come together and express diverse views on the topic: useful not only to find the range of views, but also for the participants to learn from each other, and to generate a sense of social cohesion.

Method

Planning

The moderator should prepare a script or list of issues which need to be tackled. It is wise not to be too prescriptive, to allow spontaneity in the group. A focus group session should feel free-flowing and relatively unstructured. Focus groups often bring out users spontaneous reactions and ideas through the interaction between the participants. Meetings should last between 1 to 2 hours.

Try to avoid selecting all the participants from the same department or neighbourhood. Diversity is useful. Usually about 6 to 12 users participate in any one focus group meeting session. A programme of focus group sessions may be planned to cover a wide range of responses.

A selection of users should be individually invited to each focus group session. The invitation should explain that this is to a focus group, and if necessary, a few words about what will be discussed and what the format of a focus group meeting is. Hospitality may be offered (e.g. tea or coffee).

A video, a short demonstration, or putting on the table examples of artifacts relevant to the focus group topic may be used to start the discussion.

Running

The session should be run by an experienced moderator who is responsible for maintaining the focus of the group on the issues of interest to the addressees of the focus group results. Moderators can gain experience from participating as delegates in other focus groups: no amount of reading is a substitute for experience.

It is usual to spend a few minutes of introduction time, going round the table. Participants may be given name tags or desk labels to assist in identifying who is who.

The purpose of focus groups is not consensus building - rather, it is to obtain a range of opinions from a representative set of target users about issues to hand. Each user's point of view is of interest and it is the moderator's task to encourage each user to express their unique points of view.

The end of a focus group may be wound up with a slight hint of formality, and the participants should be thanked for their time and showing their interest.

Reporting

Focus groups are mainly designed to obtain people's opinions and not to determine the exact strength of their opinions. Notice that focus group interviews do not generate quantitative information and the results strictly speaking should not be generalized or "projected" to a larger population although in fact they often are - hence the use of a programme of focus group sessions.

The results of focus groups can be used as a basis for generating hypotheses for further evaluation and user validation using both qualitative and quantitative methods, e.g. the results can assist in the development of questionnaires, surveys, and items for tests by identifying response categories and constructs that evaluators might not have otherwise considered. Focus groups can make questionnaires and other evaluation methods more language sensitive, because vocabulary that is common to the users can be discerned in the focus group interview and then incorporated into the measure.

More Information

Focus groups are not generally appropriate for evaluation (Nielsen, 1999).

Alternative Methods

Other methods of collecting information from users include interviews, user observation, survey questionnaires, or user participation in context of use analysis or brainstorming.

Next Steps

A focus group should lead to either a wider data collection exercise, such as a mass-mailed survey, or to a more intensive analysis of the problem in hand, for instance by card sort or affinity diagramming. It may also lead to early prototyping activities.

Case studies

Yang, Y. (1990). Interface usability engineering under practical constraints: A case study in the design of undo support (pp. 549-554). In D. Diaper, D. Gilmore, G. Cockton, & B. Shackel (Eds.), Proceedings of the IFIP INTERACT '90 (Cambridge, UK, 27-31 August). Amsterdam: North-Holland.

Background Reading

Vaughn, S., Schumm, J.S., & Sinagub, J. (1996). Focus Group Interviews in Education and Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Caplan, S. (1990). Using focus groups methodology for ergonomic design. Ergonomics 33(5), 527-533.

More books and articles.


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