Are Focus Groups Worth the Effort?

When it comes to developing web sites – particularly content and features, I’ve often wondered about the usefulness of focus groups and whether they really provide you with information on which you can make a well-grounded design decision.

Is Consumer Research Losing its Focus, despite the overly clever title, brings that issue into sharp relief.

To quote its conclusion:

Focus groups continually fail to tell us what customers want. The fundamental problem is that, in spite of what conventional wisdom tells us, it is not the voice of the consumer that matters. What matters is the mind of the consumer. The big mistake is in believing that what the mind thinks, the voice speaks.

I certainly agree with this statement. Personally, I think there is so much wrong with the way that focus groups work, that I don’t find them to be a practical tool in the web professional’s toolbox.

If you ask someone if they would like to have feature x or y, more often than not they will say yes.

After all, it probably sounds pretty cool to them and they will have likely invested almost no effort into thinking about whether this is something that will really be useful to them.

That’s why, rather than asking people whether they would like this new feature – or even what they want at all – I try instead to examine what problem or need exists and then look at how it might be solved.

This stops you from jumping into solution-making when you haven’t even fully understood the issue to be solved.

In fact, it’s not uncommon to find out that there’s no problem in the first place. When it comes to our organizational intranet, I often hear that people have trouble finding things – I’ve even heard it loud and clear in a focus group.

Yet, when I followed up with individual users and asked them what tasks they use the intranet for on a regular basis and then observed them carrying out those tasks, they had no problem whatsoever in completing them.

Far from having to do a large redesign of our intranet, all I’ve needed to do is the odd tweak here and there.

Perhaps the moral of this story is: listen to what your users tell you, just don’t always believe them.