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Methods – Focus Group

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What it is:

A focus group is a staged face-to-face discussion typically involving 6-12 people and chaired by an impartial moderator. Its aim is to solicit focused feedback on specific issues or design ideas, giving designers firsthand experience of user reaction. Selection of focus group participants is critical as group dynamics play a key role. Some participants may be empowered, other intimidated. Focus groups should therefore work in conjunction with other methods such as interviews, giving everyone the opportunity to contribute.

Input:

Expertise:

Time:

Staffing:

Costs:

Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High

Output:

User opinions and attitudes on specific issues and ideas

Best suited to:

 

”DISCOVER

Mid to later stages of the design process as a form of validation and evaluation

Defining a problem, expanding the designer’s understanding and generating ideas, without participants having to reach a consensus.

Characteristics:

DESIGNING FOR | WITH | BY PEOPLE

Type of interaction:

LEARN | LOOK | ASK | TRY | IMAGINE

Goes well with:

Observation & Shadowing, Interview, Questionnaire

What designers say:

‘…Focus groups can take a great deal of time and energy to organise, but for the inclusive design process it can offer fresh insights for design researchers as well as generate wider understanding between participants, a win-win situation…’ Design anthropologist Jo-Anne Bichard

Examples

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One Shot: packaging guidelines for single-use medical devices

Sarah Gottlieb held focus groups with NHS staff in order to get their feedback on usability issues related to medical packaging.

Read more

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Alternative View: developing smartphones with low vision communities

Yusuf Muhammad organised focus groups with two groups – visually impaired teenagers and over-65s – to gain a better understanding of their problems with smartphone technology.

Read more

Background and further reading

The focus group was started as a social science method by Robert K  Merton in 1942 at the Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University, USA. He developed the focused interview to elicit the responses of groups to texts, radio programmes and films, and this led to the ‘focus groups’ widely used in politics, marketing and design today.

Hypponen, H. (1999) ‘Focus Groups’ in Methods Lab| User Research Methods, Royal College of Art, p.22

This lists some key issues for a successful focus group meeting,

Bruseberg, A.  & D. McDonagh-Philp (2002) ‘Focus Groups to support the Industrial/Product Designer: A review based on current literature and designers’ feedback’ in Applied Ergonomics Volume 33, Issue 1, pp. 27-38

Research paper that includes interviews with designers on their experience of using the focus group method.

Gibbs, A. (1997) Focus Groups Social Research Update http://sru.soc.surrey.ac.uk/SRU19.html

This explores how the experience of focus groups can be empowering for many participants.

Christopher Ireland (2003) ‘Qualitative methods: From Boring to Brilliant’ in Design Research Methods and Perspectives. Ed Brenda Laurel, The MIT Press.

An overview of focus groups including methods derived from focus groups that may be more practical for professional designers.

Kamberelis G. & G. Dimitriadis (2008) ‘Focus Groups; Strategic Articulations of Pedagogy, Politics and Inquiry’ in Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials Eds. N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln. Sage, 2008

A key text for design researchers especially those at PhD level to understand how focus groups are used in qualitative research.