Focus Groups - When, Why & How

The 1 Line Description

Where focus groups fit in the mix of Customer Discovery activities. + How to do them well!

When to use it

During early stage product development, during exploratory research.

Key Ideas

#1) The When & Why

What is a focus group? 

It’s a research interview that includes more than one participant.

When is it ideal to use these and what are they good for?

These are best used for more exploratory research, to find problems, pain points and value propositions typically in early-stage product development. They are useful to explore broader hypotheses, where you want to listen to your customers’ stories rather than get very specific answers to narrow questions. Asking narrow questions too early in the process may create confirmation bias towards your hypothesis, rather than opening up to the possibility that your assumptions may be false. 

What do they offer over a one-on-one session?

One-on-one sessions can also be used for broad, exploratory research but focus groups offer a social dynamic, where you have multiple participants with something in common. This opens each person up to speak more freely, and they feed off of each other’s stories and you often get more (and surprising) detail from this. Think of it as a dinner-party vibe. Many participants also find it less intimidating to be in a focus group than a one-on-one as they feel they won’t need to “know all the answers” and it feels less like a test. Another benefit is that participants may learn from each other, and therefore find the session a valuable and enriching experience. And finally, if you are planning to recruit a customer advisory panel from your participants, they are more likely to sign up for this if they’ve actually met each other and bonded a bit in a group like this.

What do they offer over a survey?

Surveys are good to provide statistical muscle to insights you have already received, or specific questions you have. They work well when you have already done exploratory research, have learned some interesting things, and then want to check if those observations apply to a larger group of customers, or are anomalies in your smaller sample. Surveys also offer you the ability to reach people who may not have the time, proximity or trust to agree to a focus group. In this latter case, it’s often best to ask a few open-ended questions, to receive free-text responses.

What downsides or risks should I be aware of? 

As in any social setting, group dynamics come into play in a focus group. This means they require a facilitator to ensure that everyone in the group has equal airtime, that people feel free and safe to speak their minds, even if their views are contrary. Consideration for each other and group etiquette should be maintained, as you would in any good meeting. The designing of the questions should allow individuals to tell their own factual stories, rather than share speculative opinions as the latter often results in the strongest voices dominating the room, and more introverted personalities going with the flow. 

When not to use a focus group?

If you want detailed feedback and discussion around a solution you are proposing (as opposed to a problem you are exploring), focus groups are not ideal for this, as groupthink can kick in and people will defer to the strongest voices in the room. Also you will not have enough time to give everyone a chance to speak and get the level of detail you need for everyone. Solution validation works best in one-on-one settings. Also, focus groups do not work for user testing. Here you want an individual to walk through a product design, and describe how they are thinking as they use it. Again, these are very detailed sessions, where you don’t want groupthink and you need time to delve into an individual user’s behaviour. 

What you should expect out of the discussion

You should gain perspective on how your customer’s think, what matters most to them and where the value in your product will lie, for them. These are not concrete answers to “what is our value proposition” as much as fertile ground where insights will emerge. Therefore, it is important to listen not only to what your participants are saying, but to try to probe into the why behind what they are saying, to observe what they aren’t saying, as well as body language and emotion that may be expressed in the session. All of this is soft data that you will use in your debriefing sessions to distill insights. 

#2) Plan Well!

2.1. Hypothesis Mapping - Identify the key assumptions you need to test

First, do a hypothesis mapping to surface the assumptions you have about your product, and which you are most uncertain about, or which may have the greatest bearing on your decisions. 

2.2. Make sure you're speaking to the right people!

Once you have this shortlist, group the kinds of stakeholders (customers in some form) who would be the best test for your hypothesis. Focus groups should ideally host a grouping of similar stakeholders to get the most out of the discussion. 

Think about which contacts you have in this stakeholder group, and create groupings of 4-5 participants who will be comfortable to chat together. Consider if they are competitors, at different stages of experience, or very different contexts, as this may create disconnects in the session rather than a flowing conversation. 

2.3. Setting up the session

Phone your participants to explain the session and why you’d like them to participate (it helps to script this call so you’ve prepared what to say and how to position). Sometimes, some form of compensation is appropriate, especially in consumer rather than B2B research, and you can mention the reward you are offering for this. Be careful of financial compensation as this can cheapen the experience for the participants. Better results are achieved with branded merchandise, a token gift or a voucher for a treat.

Once your participant has agreed to participate telephonically, or if you haven’t been able to get hold of them, follow up with an email invitation that reiterates everything you have said, and includes a calendar scheduler. Include a link for the meeting if video call, or address and map link if physical. Test this video link before the session, with your team.

The time you plan for the session depends on the number of people in the session. You should budget for 15 minutes per participant, as well as an additional 15 minutes for introductions and wrap-ups. That means 90 minutes for 5 participants as a rule of thumb. It is unlikely that you will get enough participants for a session longer than 90 minutes without compensation, and a group larger than 5 becomes more complex to facilitate.  

2.4. The session plan

Now create a plan for how you’re going to run your session. Your plan should include:

Which customer segment you’re looking at.

Which hypotheses you are hoping to test

A detailed conversation flow mapped to time -- consider the following elements for your discussion:

  • Introductions - yourself, your team and your participants and some house rules
  • Provide a slide that explains what a focus group is and the etiquette you would like, for when people arrive. You may use other slides as well to prompt thinking or responses. 
  • Open-ended conversation starters that ask for factual stories 
  • Questions to probe these stories further -- focus on asking why, rather than what or how, at this stage
  • You may find it useful to introduce some quick polls to test questions that would be useful in surveys later -- zoom has a polls facility, and there are other apps such as Mentimeter, Poll Everywhere and Slido.
  • If you include polls, have someone facilitate these alongside you, if you are the group facilitator. It works best ask participants to answer polls on their phone, so you can keep them on the call, and then display the poll results for discussion. This allows them to remain anonymous on a topic if they prefer that.
  • If you are including an invitation to be part of an advisory panel, include a slide that shows the levels of involvement possible. It may be too intimidating to ask for commitment in the session, but have them think about this and use this as a prompt to follow up on what their comfort levels are and answer questions in your thank you email afterwards

Be realistic on how much time you want to allocate to introductions, story-telling, questioning, polling and saying thanks at the end. Include time for instructions and at least one short break in the middle. 

2.5. Final session prep

  • Getting ready for the actual session, send out a reminder to everyone the day before, about the day and time and how important this session is to you, and who has accepted in their peer group
  • Line up your note-taker(s) and any other support you will need in the session itself. 
  • Run through the sequence of events with everyone who has a speaking slot in your agenda. 

#3) How to run the Session

In my opinion, it works best to do a ton of planning upfront, but when you’re in the focus group, let it flow, trust the plan and keep it light. 

It should feel fun, energising and social to the participants, and it helps to imagine yourself hosting a dinner party rather than running a focus group. The more relaxed your participants are, the more free and comfortable they will feel to share their stories. 

While you, the duck, are swimming gracefully on the water, there is some leg flapping happening below the surface. The things to think about as the facilitator:

Note-taking: Ask someone on your team to takes notes during the session, and do this well before, so they are not surprised

Recording: Ask your participants if they mind you recording the session, and if everyone is comfortable then that’s a good backup. If someone objects, rather leave it, it’s a nice to have and not worth wasting time on negotiating. At least you have a note taker. 

Time management: Pre-discuss priorities with your team, and know what to let go of later in your plan, if the conversation is riveting and you are getting valuable insights early in the discussion 

Group dynamics: Keep an eye out for the talkers and try to manage their time allocation rigorously, while prompting the quiet people, by asking them questions and drawing them into the conversation. Refer back to your opening slide about etiquette if you need to remind the group about not speaking over each other

Tech issues for remote sessions: Things will go wrong, usually on your participants side, with bandwidth, microphones and interruptions on their side. Some things to help here:

  • If one participant is struggling with connectivity, ask them to switch off their video to get better audio
  • If several participants are struggling, then all turn off videos except for facilitator to make it easier to hear
  • If someone can’t unmute themselves, ask them to type some thoughts into the chat
  • If someone has a lot of visual interruptions on their side or is moving around, ask them to switch off their camera to not distract others
  • You may need to remind people to mute themselves or use the raised hand
  • If things are completely unravelling for a participant, ask them to sign out and you will invite them to the next session

#4) Debriefing Afterwards

In my experience, the debrief is the most important part of this process. When everyone who was listening in from your team reflects back together, you will often see patterns that you didn’t notice in the heat of running the session. 

It’s good to do this debrief the next day, so that everyone has had time to digest it a bit. Go back through the agenda and ask your team for:

  • what they observed: Behaviour patterns| Emotional responses | Customer segments | New assumptions emerging | Old assumptions changing
  • what stood out
  • what surprised them
  • what they felt uneasy about
  • what left them wondering

Several categories of actions should come out as next steps:

  1. Are there any insights that you want go back to individuals for more detail on -- list  these for future one-on-ones
  2. Are their any insights that you want to tailor your next focus group around, or spend more time on
  3. Would you refine anything else for the next session in terms of attendees, topics, length of time etc
  4. What clear insights can be logged for decisions and actions in your hypotheses tracker, value proposition canvas and your backlog
  5. Who is doing what in terms of thanking your participants, delivering their gift, following up on commitments that have been made and setting up future sessions.