A focus group lets you quickly validate ideas and utilize the creativity of a group, but it’s more difficult than a 1:1 interview for a number of reasons. Organizing schedules, finding the right respondents, and managing the conversation all become important factors to success. If you’ve decided that a focus group provides the right structure for your needs, follow these simple tips for getting the most out of your time.

Don’t Limit Yourself

As you plan the focus group, think about your ideal respondents and find a tool or location that works for everyone. Do you need to find out what challenges car fleet owners in India have and validate how your app could help them minimize downtime? Then don’t settle for talking to car owners in the Bay Area just because they can come to your office during work hours.

Live online focus groups, even in emerging markets, are possible with a number of platforms, including lightweight ones like Skype or Zoom, and more tailored solutions like discuss.io and FocusVision. (Disclosure: I’m an employee of discuss.io.)

Don’t limit yourself by the time of day either. One of the easiest recruitment pitfalls to avoid is planning a session at a time that is inconvenient for your participants. Do you need feedback from working moms? Then a session at 10:00 AM on a weekday is not going to work, even if it’s the most convenient time for you. Be flexible with your timing and schedule your group for the time when your target profile is available.

Recruit Carefully

The dynamics of a focus group are very different from a 1:1 conversation, and if you’re not careful, you may create a dynamic that keeps people from feeling safe enough to speak openly. Include questions in your screening surveythat show you who will be talkative and willing to share among a group of strangers, and who would be better to connect with in a 1:1 setting.

Key behavioral questions to include in your screener:

  • How open-minded do you consider yourself to be?
  • Do you prefer to spend your free time alone or with others?
  • On a scale of 1–5, how much do you agree or disagree with these statements?
    a. I enjoy meeting and talking to new people
    b. When I meet people for the first time, I’m shy and do not talk much
    c. I think I am creative

Finally, always set expectations about the nature of the session that a participant will be walking (or logging) into. One cautionary tale has stuck with me about a participant with great insight to share, but who was blindsided by being part of a focus group and was eventually asked to leave the session early.

Create a Comfortable Environment

To get good answers from a focus group, you need to put your participants in an environment where they feel comfortable answering truthfully. If you’re doing an in-person focus group, show the participants around. Let them know where the bathrooms are. Calibrate the room temperature and the lighting. Have coffee or water available, especially if your sessions run over an hour.

If you’ll be recording the session, let everyone know ahead of time. If you are in a facility with a back room, let participants know that there may be observers watching the session.

If you’re eliciting feedback on your competitive positioning or asking things about your brand, consider holding the focus group in a neutral space. Being in your office may bias participants who don’t want to say negative things while surrounded by the hardworking people who make the product they’re evaluating!

You will also want to consider cultural factors. In some countries, it would be inappropriate for women to participate with men in a mixed group, or with a male moderator. Even if your participants don’t face those concerns, your subject matter may be such that single-gender groups will elicit more honest responses to the same questions. A few minutes of consideration about the design of your focus group can vastly improve the responses you get.

Keep the Session Moving

Write a discussion guide ahead of time to keep you on track during the session. It doesn’t need to be a question-by-question script but rather a guidepost to keep you on track and make sure you don’t miss anything important.

Writing things out ahead of time also allows you to reorder your activities to manage the energy and mood of the room. Start with an icebreaker or introductory activity to build some shared experience amongst the group. Use this as a chance to evaluate who is likely to dominate the discussion and strategize about how you will make space for every participant to share their thoughts.

Include a mix of activities, such as:

  • open-ended questions
  • prioritization activities
  • voting (I like using fake money and having participants spend their money on the features they most want us to build)
  • mapping out current processes and pain points

Another good activity is a challenges/opportunities activity where you could pose a question like “What are the enablers and blockers to increasing adoption of this tool within your company?” We did this exercise for our B2B app and split the group into two, one to focus on blockers and another to focus on enablers.

Moderate like a Pro

Get a pro, or at least an unbiased, moderator if you can. You’ll want someone who has experience managing the dynamics of a group discussion who can keep participation balanced, adjust activities as needed, and ask questions in a way that doesn’t orient the answers toward your hypothesis.

If you do need to act as the moderator, study up on how to avoid leading questions. Instead of, “Would you find this feature valuable?” ask, “How valuable would you find this feature?” It’s a subtle difference, but it keeps the user from feeling pressured to say, “Yes, I would find it valuable.

Lastly, get comfortable with moments of uncomfortable silence. If you’re asking good questions, participants may need a moment to think about their response. The best moderators ask a question then maintain a neutral/positive face while silently waiting for a response. They don’t rephrase the question, and they definitely don’t suggest an answer (I have caught myself doing both of these things!) If you feel the urge to speak, count to five in your head to distract yourself. Your participants are likely to start speaking before you finish the count.

For more tips on leveling up your moderating skills, you can read up on different moderator roles and learn more about asking unbiased questions.

Turn Insights into Action

I recently ran a focus group with senior-level market researchers. One of the things that stood out for me in that group was this quote: “We don’t have a lack of insights. We have a lack of action!

After your session ends, debrief with other employees in attendance. If possible, give everyone a sheet of paper and ask no more than three questions to capture their main takeaways from the day. Your questions could include:

  • What was the most surprising thing you heard today?
  • If you were to quit your job and start a company based on what you heard today, what company would you start?
  • If you walk out of here and run into our CEO, what is the one thing you will tell them about this session?
  • If you could only make one change to our product after listening to today’s session, what would it be?
  • How did what you heard today differ from what you expected to hear?

Share out a summary of suggested actions. Use real quotes or videos as supporting evidence whenever possible to drive home the learning for those who weren’t in attendance.

Focus groups are a fantastic way to quickly understand multiple opinions from a targeted group of users. With careful preparation, cultural understanding, and moderator discipline, you can craft a day that provides you with valuable direction and is rewarding to a select group of customers.

A version of this post originally appeared as part of the weekly Ask Women in Product series.


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