According to Wikipedia (March 18,2011), “A focus group is a form of qualitative research in which a group of people are asked about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes towards a product, service, concept, advertisement, idea, or packaging. Questions are asked in an interactive group setting where participants are free to talk with other group members. The first focus groups were created at the Bureau of Applied Social Research in the USA, by associate director, sociologist Robert K. Merton. The term itself was coined by psychologist and marketing expert Ernest Dichter.”
Focus groups are also called group interviews and are typically conducted among eight to twelve users that should represent the population one is interested in.
The benefits of the focus group method is that its discussion stimulates people's thoughts and flow of idea generation/discussion. There are disadvantages like reliability (the same or a similar focus group may produce different results), generalization (focus group may not represent a larger population). Also, in a group setting, people may hold back information or invent information.
Focus group methods are best used to elicit attitudes, opinions, desires, maybe intentions. One also can elicit the same kind of information with respect to a specific artifact like a product or a web site. Some researchers also use focus groups to elicit work practices or to build a consensus, but that is not typical.
As with any method, there are several disadvantages. For example: What people tell may no be necessarily what they do or what they are able to do. E.g. to understand what people do (i.e. actual behavior) one has to observe them doing, and to understand what they can do one has to test their abilities with tasks.
Focus groups are for brainstorming. If you want a list of (mostly bad) ideas it is a great tool. Eric Shaffer in 2004
Focus groups in design and usability studies
“A focus group brings together a cross-section of stakeholders in a discussion group format. Views on relevant topics are elicited by a facilitator. The meetings can be taped for later analysis. Focus groups are useful early in requirements specification but can also serve as a means of collecting feedback once a system has been in use for some time. Focus groups help to provide a multi-faceted perspective on requirements and identify issues that may need to be tackled.” (NASA Usability toolkit, retrieved 11:25, 18 March 2011 (CET))
Another use of focus groups is to gather feedback from a cohort that would just represent users or potential users of a web site. However, this feedback expresses opinions of participants and cannot replace usability testing.
There exist several variants. Also, similar group-based methods may have different names.
Focus groups and web design
According to usability.gov, “You will need to select representative participants who match the users you want to come to your Web site. You will need to decide what you want to learn and write a ‘script’ for the moderator to follow. Hiring a skill moderator to facilitate the discussion will help insure that everyone participates and the group stays on track. The script gives the moderator questions to ask and topics to cover. Allowing the moderator flexibility will allow him to change the order of questions and topics to keep the discussion flowing smoothly. Tape the sessions and have one or more note takers.”
According to Usability Body of Knowledge, retrieved 11:25, 18 March 2011 (CET), “Focus group moderators generally follow a discussion plan that has the questions, prompts, tasks, and exercises for the group. The success of a focus group is heavily dependent on the skill of the moderator. The moderator must generate interest in the topic, involve all the participants, keep the discussion on track (but also allow for unexpected diversions), keep dominant personalities from overwhelming other participants, and not give away the sponsor’s beliefs or expectations.”
- Focus groups at Dey Alexander Consulting. Good list of resources.
- Focus groups, University of BC. No longer updated since 2007.
- Topics in Usability - Focus Groups at Usability&User Experience, STC Community.
- Focus Group, Preview of the Usability Body of Knowledge.
- Focus groups at usabilitynet.
- Interviews and Focus Groups by James Hom
- The Use and Misuse of Focus Groups by Jakob Nielsen
- FAQs about Focus Group at GroupsPlus. This website includes other introductions and tips.
- Mind the Gap. On the appropriate use of focus groups and usability testing in planning and evaluating Interfaces, by Kath Straub. “She looks at the value of focus groups and when not to use them. For usability, testing is key.”
- Basics of Conducting Focus Groups by Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC. This piece is part of Conducting Focus Groups
- Caplan, S. (1990). Using focus groups methodology for ergonomic design. Ergonomics 33(5), 527-533.
- Denzin, N.K., & Lincoln, Y.S. (1994). Handbook of qualitative research. London: Sage.
- Greenbaum, Thomas L., The Handbook for Focus Group Research, 1997, Sage Pubns; ISBN 0761912533. The author also has a good website with articles on various focus group issues
- Morgan, D. L. (1998). The focus group guidebook. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Vaughn, S., Schumm, J.S., & Sinagub, J. (1996). Focus Group Interviews in Education and Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
- Yang, Y. (1990). Interface usability engineering under practical constraints: A case study in the design of undo support (pp. 549-554). In D. Diaper, D. Gilmore, G. Cockton, & B. Shackel (Eds.), Proceedings of the IFIP INTERACT '90 (Cambridge, UK, 27-31 August). Amsterdam: North-Holland.