When You Should Use a Focus Group (and When You Shouldn’t)

Testing user or consumer reactions to a new product before launch is standard practice in the world of new product development. Concept testing can give a company solid insight into the potential success of a product – and focus group research can be more valuable than other research – but that doesn’t mean that they’re a necessary element of every project.  

Companies are drawn to focus group methodology because of the depth of the results. There are instances in which working with a focus group can tap into the consumer or user’s mind in ways that surveys simply can’t. However, there are weaknesses to focus group testing – people can be hostile to new concepts even when there are clear benefits and may not be able to realistically forecast their future needs, wants and behaviors. As a result, testing groups may fail to recognize the advantages a new product brings to the table.

But in cases where focus groups are deemed an appropriate method of gaining insight into new product development, talking to potential users can be a valuable development tool.


Who Benefits Most from Focus Groups

Focus group insight is the most valuable prior to and during the initial concept generation phase. User experience can help generate new ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise come to the table. That said, focus groups can also be utilized later in the design process to drive product styling and as teams evaluate prototypes.


How Focus Groups Work

Focus groups gather target users in a discussion about issues important to them as they relate to the product in development. Their participation is guided by a skilled moderator who keeps the conversation moving in a useful direction so that participants can effectively express their thoughts, beliefs and feelings about the product and the problems it was designed to solve.

That data collected by focus groups isn’t factual but rather qualitative – giving designers valuable insight into why and how user groups may interact with a product. This can uncover interesting information about how people may actually use a product (when it differs from the intended use) and how users’ emotional responses may affect how likely they are to use or purchase a product in the first place.


Putting Together a Focus Group

The best focus group will have the right composition, a good environment, an effective moderator and strong analysis. Together, these elements guarantee results that are creative, thoughtful, original and not overly influenced by demographic factors. Unfortunately, ensuring that each of these elements is in place can be costlythe costs involved for screening and selecting participants and then running focus groups using specialisaed firms can be as high as $10,000 but you should shop around and be sure you understand what’s included.  It’s often a good idea to ensure you get video recordings of the session along with transcribed notes to make it easier to analyse afterwards.

Conducting a focus group in house is one alternative but requires a great deal of planning and follow up to be successful.


When Not to Use a Focus Group

There are times when it doesn’t make sense to spend the money or the time to conduct a focus group as part of product development. For instance, when others have conducted a great deal of research into how your product type is perceived by consumers or users and how the product is most often used, it makes sense to take advantage of the research already available.

And because it depends on people, focus group methodology shouldn’t be a primary research tactic when major marketing or budget decisions hinge on the results. The sample sizes in typical focus groups – which are made up most often ten people or less – are too small to yield conclusive statistical precision. Focus groups can tell you a lot about people’s perceptions of your product or product type but the results shouldn’t be treated as quantitative data.

Also, focus groups may not be a good choice for very new or innovative ideas that may be difficult for people to grasp in a short period of time. The participants will want to compare the concept to something they already know and understand so the feedback may be overly negative when really they just don’t know what they are looking at.

In the end, a focus group can be an incredibly powerful research tool that supports innovation in product development. Evidence based research can lead to the development of products that aren’t just accepted but are enthusiastically embraced because they meet a very real and clearly stated need.

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Jarrod Barker
About the Author
Jarrod Barker
Jarrod has a keen interest in technology development and operations. He has an honours degree in Mechanical Engineering and his industry experience spans product design, sports technology, medical device engineering and power generation. He has worked for a leading design consultancy in Cambridge, UK and now runs the Outerspace branch in San Diego USA.

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