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Focus groups. Confidence problem

April 3, 2018

Nowadays, UX designers write strategies, develop structures, design navigation, create wireframes, mind maps, prototypes, and of course, conduct different types of research. As of now, there are lots of research methods used, and all of them have been developed for these specific goals; however, the majority of the discussions are held around the methods of determining focus groups. 

It is commonly believed that the method of focus groups is helpful in determining the demands of crowds and of individuals. 

Yet, it is also often criticized for its subjectivity, time-consuming preparation, enormous costs and determining contextual relativity. Hence, at the end of the day, focus groups occupy only a supporting role to the more respected verdicts from quantitative research.

What is a focus groups method?

This method is used to understand the needs, expectations, and possible reactions of the potential users to the product being developed. It is based on the interviewing that is performed by a moderator with a group of people selected according to the given features. 

They are asked a number of questions or are shown a demo version offering an opportunity to speak up their mind concerning the aspect discussed. 

The moderator’s task is to involve all the respondents into the process that results in the effect of the group behavior during which it will be possible to observe the development of the collective motivation, formation of opinion and various aspects of the collective behavior. The whole process is documented with a help of voice recorders and cameras so that all the respondents are seen and heard well on the record. 

The main part of the information is received in the form of respondents’ answers or verbal reactions. But, a great number of individual and collective reactions have non-verbal characters. That is proxemics, kinesics, gestures, mimics - everything that is perceived by the participants of the discussion unconsciously and is as well included in the report provided to the customer.

Problematics

There are enough cases in the history when a suggested functionality gets approved by a focus group but turns out to be absolutely non-descriptive of the end users. Supposedly this undermines the method itself. But we suggest considering an alternative. What if the problem lies not in the method itself, but in what is asked and how the research is conducted?

Wrong questions

Looking through one of the research transcripts devoted to a new coffee brand, I paid attention to the moderator’s question: is it important for a coffee package to be recycled afterward and not pollute the environment?

All the respondents gave positive answers. Yet an important consecutive question was omitted. The moderator did not ask whether the respondents were sorting out rubbish. Taking into account the fact that the research was conducted in eastern Europe, where according to International Finance Corporation (IFC) 95% of rubbish is buried we can observe a classic case of misinformation. 

The truth of respondents answers is expected to be low. The moderator lost the opportunity to determine the truthfulness of the respondent's words. This is a classic example of how the wrong question of the moderator can lead to the increase of the final product cost and absence of demand for the function implemented.

Subjectivity

A sociologist Chekhovskiy in his research of the factors, influencing this method productivity, has come to the conclusion that factors of “failure” relating to the processing of the gathered information equal ⅓ of the general problematics, while ⅔ are the factors connected with the organization and moderator’s work. 

Subjectivity factor, that is the main reason for the accusations of the focus groups method, is only 1/9, and it can be even lower. If we assume that subjectivity in the analytical work comes up when there is a lack of information, we can compensate it with a deeper communication with the respondents during the face-to-face part of the research.

Context change

Choosing the right respondents, following the procedure of the focus groups method and precise understanding of the goals and tasks are really important factors. A moderator should support respondents’ involvement, discussion focus, and development of the group dynamics using both verbal and non-verbal approaches. 

The absence of pressure on the respondents from the moderator's side is another important criterium.

Verdict

This succinct discussion was meant to show that the certainty with which the method of focus groups is criticized is unjustified. As we said the critics often claim that the method of focus groups is costly and inconclusive. Yet I have provided an example, certainly one of the hundreds, where the cost is not effective. 

Often, we believe, the cost is a result of wrong questions and a bad interview tactic, rather than an inherent flaw in the method. Furthermore, theoretical evidence suggests that the subjectivity of the results is a minor factor in their interpretation.

Though the method is subjected to several factors that can lead to the research failure, method critics, and accusations of the inability to rely on the research result are quite exaggerated. All these negative factors can also influence other qualitative or quantitative methods.

Moderator’s qualification remains a decisive factor and has a primary meaning for the efficiency of the focus groups method.