Focus Groups Are Not Always the Solution

July 31, 2017   |   Sarah Deighan

You’ve heard about focus groups; many traditional marketers swear by them. They’re a great way to get feedback about your website, right? Not quite.

Focus groups are great for introducing ideas and getting some impressions of how the public will respond. But, typically, they are dominated by the loudest, most confident voices in the room. If you go into a focus group with a selection of options, you should come out with a narrower set to choose from. However, if you go into a focus group with a single option, you’re likely to come out with the impression that something else would be much better.

Available Research Activities

Focus groups are a valuable research tool, but they’re often misused. Ineffective research activities can leave everyone more confused than when they began the process. To find the ideal method to get the feedback that you need, you must consider several factors. While you can use UX research on almost anything – advertisements, mobile applications, and even instructional manuals – for this post, we’re going to identify good techniques to get feedback on a website.

What do they know that I don’t?

In order to learn about a process or your users’ experiences, you want one-on-one user interviews. An experienced interviewer can make people feel at ease, even with sensitive topics, or help them remember things that they might not have recalled without some help.

So, the question: is your user group huge and spread out across the globe? No user is going to get up at 2 am to talk to you about your website without being compensated. In this case, your best bet is a survey; with some carefully crafted questions, a survey will give you a lot of information.

Are things organized correctly?

This happens every day – your mom comes over and all of a sudden, your DVDs are no longer in alphabetical order but organized by genre and then date of release and none of the genres make sense (“Mom, how is ‘funny’ different from ‘comedy?’”)

If you know that you need a new organization for your site navigation, then you need a card sort. This is the method to help organize the information on your website. You’ll get information about how different user groups think about your information and then be able to build a cohesive, best-fit version.

Have an information architecture?

If you want to see if your existing organizational structure is effective, you can perform a tree test. You can evaluate your current structure and identify any areas where items are mis-categorized, allowing you to fine-tune your architecture.

Need help choosing?

Trying to pick between two options and want some feedback on it from actual people? A/B testing – a test where you compare two versions of a webpage to see which one performs better – has you covered. Each version, A or B, is shown to a group of people and see how they interact with them. The one which performs better is the one that you should use. Asking one group of people which one they like better will only reflect their favorite color.

Do I need to tweak anything?

It’s been months and months of work and your website is almost ready for deployment. You may even be tired of looking at it (don’t feel bad – it happens to everyone!). Now, you just want to make sure that there’s nothing that will negatively impact launch. At this point, if you go into a focus group room with your website, you will come out thinking you should have made a rocking horse from crystalized penguin tears. Resist. The. Urge.

This is a golden opportunity for usability testing. Depending on how complex your site is, you may be fine with un-moderated user testing (no one talking them through the testing process) or you may need someone there to garner more information about what the users are thinking.

Usability testing is effective for ongoing, iterative improvements as well. Technology, preferences, and the competitive landscape change over time and so do the needs of users. It’s a great idea to periodically perform a quick check-up.

Transparency and open communication is key

Users’ experiences across digital media shift but the research activities outlined above are pretty stable, well known, and more effective than a focus group in many instances. User research is not just about gathering information; it’s about efficiently gathering useful, actionable information and keeping users as the focus throughout the process. If you can accomplish these two things, chances are you have a good shot at creating meaningful online experiences.


Sarah Deighan has a Master’s Degree in Human-Centered Computing from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). In her role as User Experience Lead at Blue Water, Sarah is responsible for surfacing users’ needs and keeping them in focus throughout the process.