My First Focus Group

I’m observing my first focus group tomorrow, and I’m both excited and nervous because several of my projects are being reviewed.

I was wondering if anybody can share some advice about their experiences with focus groups.

Get stuck into the pizza and try not to cough it up when someone says something completely daft.

(probably make some notes of ‘key learnings’ etc. just to show your paying attention)

Don’t take it personally.

Don’t take it personally.

Boy is that an understatement… really, don’t take it personally, and try to keep it all in perspective… they might kill you, but they won’t eat you. :wink:

And get used to dealing with criticism, especially of the negative variety; constructive criticism is better, but some folks just can’t dish that kind out for some reason.

And relax.

Learn to read between the lines. Focus group can cause a lot of miss understood feedback if taken literally. Learn to understand what the consumer really means, rather than what they say, or identify patterns in their responses.


Don’t listen to what people say, watch what they do… and even then, a reaction in a contrived observed group setting is not realistic.

Thanks for the advice everybody.

I learned a lot today, but my rear is still raw from the beating I received. I actually enjoyed most of it. It’s exciting to see people use the products I designed. We will all be much better for it.

And, of course, there’s always scotch.

My advice for focus groups, is that you treat any design inputs as nothing more than interview stimuli. As such, make sure they cover a wide, but situationally appropriate range of solution, for the problems you think you are trying to solve. You get burned if you treat them as “products” or real designs. At this stage they are little more than a concrete representation of an idea.

Anytime we talk to consumers my goal is to understand whats at the root of their comments. So I don’t stress if their comments have a negative connotation, as long as their perception is what we were aiming for.

i.e. We showed some new product to our extreme users in a trade show environment. They called them cold, and corporate, not fun enough. Everyone got scared. I pointed out, that our goal was to create the perception of clean precision and quality, and establish our brand as a premium category leader.

So although on the surface, surrounded by bells and whistles and flashing lights, they said they didn’t like the look, at the core they were perceiving the products exactly the way we wanted them too.

I remember we were testing a new shoe technology with high school athletes. When the shoe came out of the bag they hated it, I mean they literally BOOO’d. We talked to them for 10 minutes trying to figure out why. Finally I pulled a black white version of the SAME shoe out and they loved it! When I told them they were the same shoe, they would not believe me and insisted on comparing every line, only then did they admit they were the same.

Lesson, these things don’t tell you that much about product, but they do tell you about people.

Watch what people do, not say.

I remember hearing a story from a design prof about how some store held a focus group about new sheets design or something. Tons of questions, group chat … Then they had them pick a free set on the way out. Whatever they said they like was pretty different from what they actually picked. The focus group ignored all the “data” and only looked at what people actually picked.

Also “people don’t know what they like. They like what they know”.

Frankly I put no stock in focus group testing I trust my intuition better than any comments from random people.


Exactly. Validation research is tough, fact finding design research to fuel and inspire the design process is good. It is like going shopping for new ingredients. You gather them all up, bring them back into the kitchen, and cook something new up.

One of my professors in school was a VP at P&G. He told us a great story that I believe drives this point home. He was doing research in south america working to develop a new clothing detergent. Early in the process they interviewed a number of test subjects.

One question they asked, " do you ever have trouble dissolving the detergent in the washing machine?"


Then they watched the same person doing laundry in their home. The subject scooped out the detergent, poured it into the washing machine, and then grabbed the spindle with their hand and spun it around for a while as the water began to fill the machine.

“What are you doing that for?”

" To make sure all the detergent dissolves."

Another classic example is the Pepsi challenge story Malcolm Gladwell tells in Blink.

People can’t vocalize problems they don’t know they have, or express opinions out of context. Also, focus groups, like anything in a group environment, has inherent pitfalls you need to be careful to avoid.

I completely agree. This becomes especially hard when it comes to packaging. With packaging you are not only dealing with structure and usability, but also graphics. Focus groups can turn you subjects into art directors an this is where it gets really dagerous. The fact is like R mentioned consumers do not know what they don’t know. I know that sounds crazy, but they are not going to tell you what the future design should be. This is why like the quote above I am not a big fan. They have the ability to cause major confusion and if you have the wrong people observing than they will twist the feedback many different ways.

That being said, at Mars we do quite a bit of sensory focus groups. Thes are groups on product (candy) to understand taste, texture, and format of new edible products. Believe it or not ID is a major part this as we work to design the best user experience Crome product to pack. There is something about food that changes everything I mentioned before.


Sometimes a good way to focus a group is by unfocusing.

The people not targeted to the proyect could help discovering paths for innovation. Cross-breed and cross pollination can be applied beyond stathics and data.

Joy of learning, and joy for discovering is crucial, sometimes these two concepts are more important than any given method or structured process.

Methods are often commited for standarize systems or recognize behaviors, but people always evolve, in a such dynamic ways that is impossible for some methods to follow and understand that changing environments.

Focus groups are a large part of my work as well. We’ve been able to distill our packaging concepts close to commercialization as possible to prevent the “art director” from coming out. To them, it meets their expectations graphically and they are able to focus on what we’re asking them.

The most important thing I would advise, is to account for dominant personalities coming up through the session. Be prepared to ask the same question three times. Most importantly, be sensitive to the inflection imparted in your facilitator. We’ve found that different facilitators can easily influence our participants. Also, have questions ready to take the session in a direction that you might not have intended at the start.

When focus group input makes the news…

EDIT: Sorry for the shortened url, I think the link name was getting censored.

mirk: Thanks. That’s a good one!