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Focus Group

A focused discussion where a moderator leads a group of participants through a set of questions on a particular topic. Focus groups are often used in the early stages of product planning and requirements gathering to obtain feedback about users, products, concepts, prototypes , tasks, strategies, and environments. Focus groups can also be used to obtain consensus about specific issues.


Related Links


Focus group interviews had their origins in the work of social scientists in the 1930s and 1940s. Robert Merton, a prominent social scientist, used group interviewing to evaluate audience reactions to radio programs and to analyze World War II training and morale films. The term "focus group" is thought to have been coined by Merton in 1956 (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994, p. 365).

Authoritative References

Denzin, N.K., & Lincoln, Y.S. (1994). Handbook of qualitative research. London: Sage.

Greenbaum, T. (1993). The handbook for focus group research (Revised edition). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Krueger, R. A. & Mary Anne Casey (2000). Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research. 3rd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kuniavsky, M. (2003). Observing the user experience. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.

Morgan, D. L. (1998). The focus group guidebook. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Morgan, D. L. (1998). Planning focus groups. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Related Subjects

  • Online focus groups: Online focus groups use chat or similar software as the basis for focus groups with geographically distributed participants.
  • Pluralistic walkthrough: A usability inspection method where users and other stakeholders review a prototype by walking through a set of tasks to identify usability problems.
  • Usability roundtables: Users are brought into a neutral site where they work with a prototype or working product and provide the product team with feedback. Users in the roundtable are asked to bring work with them if possible so they are working on realistic tasks during the roundtable.

Detailed description

Appropriate Uses

Focus groups can be used to:

  • Obtain reactions to concepts, proposals, and prototypes.
  • Gather insights that might be sparked by the group interaction.
  • Get opinions, attitudes, and preferences from participants.

To gather more detailed data, participants can spend part of the focus group working with a prototype. After participants have worked with the prototype, they can come together and discuss their reactions to the prototype.

Remote focus groups can be used when participants cannot be brought together at the same location.

Outcomes and Deliverables

The outcomes and deliverables from a focus group include:

  • Notes and transcripts of the sessions.
  • Video or audiotapes of the sessions.
  • A report that describes the purpose of the study, a description of the procedures, a summary of the findings, and perhaps most important, the significant themes that emerged within and between focus group sessions.
  • A presentation to the sponsor and other stakeholders on the product team.

Benefits, Advantages and Disadvantages


  • You can get feedback about what people do over a long period of time.
  • Focus groups used early in a project can produce insights and questions from the interaction among different users or stakeholders.
  • Focus groups are relatively inexpensive (assuming that participants are from the same geographical area) and can be arranged quickly.


  • Focus groups involve "stories" about behavior and do not examine actual user/stakeholder behavior.
  • The data from focus groups are self-report data which depend on the participants’ truthfulness and recall accuracy. What people report may be quite different than what they actually do.
  • Dominant participants can skew the results of the focus groups. Conflicts and power struggles can arise among participants.
  • Any quantitative conclusions from a focus group may be suspect because the participants are often chosen from a convenience sample.
  • Moderating a focus group is difficult. Moderators must be trained to deal with a wide range of group dynamics as well as individual differences among participants.
  • Focus groups are vulnerable to random events like storms, bad directions, and traffic jams.

How To


The general steps for the focus group methods are:

  1. Choose a good moderator.
  2. Stakeholders work with the moderator on a discussion plan and decide on the criteria for recruiting participants.
  3. The client and moderator prepare a screening questionnaire and draft a discussion guide for the focus group.
  4. Develop a data analysis plan.
  5. Decide on the incentives from your participants. Some participants may not be able to accept incentives (government officials and participants from regulated industries like insurance and banking may not be allowed to accept any incentives).
  6. Recruit your participants.
  7. Conduct a pilot test of the moderator’s guide with a small group. Modify the guide based on the results of the pilot test.
  8. Check out the facility where the focus group will be run to insure that the audio and video is set up properly (some of us have been embarrassed by blank videos because we were working in a remote site and forgot to flip a switch!)
  9. When participants arrive for the focus group session, invite them into the facility and provide some refreshments. The refreshments are meant to make participants feel welcome, but if you are conducting evening sessions, they may be quite important because the refreshments may be dinner for most people.
  10. Make sure that you have name tags. Have people introduce themselves briefly, but be sensitive to any privacy or security issues. Usually only first names are used.
  11. Describe the topic and rules for the focus group. Be clear on the rules since this may help you when the discussion strays or someone is trying to dominate the group.
  12. Begin the focus group with a good general question that everyone can answer and that the group will find involving. The first question must be one that gets everyone to talk.
  13. Follow the discussion guide and try to cover all the topics/questions that are important to your client.
  14. At the end of the session, summarize the key points that emerged, ask if there are any final comments, and thank the participants.
  15. After the focus group, collect any forms, make sure the forms are coded properly, and spend some time debriefing the focus group team.

Participants and Other Stakeholders

The people involved in focus groups include:

  • The product team who defines the goals and basic questions/topics for the focus group.
  • The moderator who plans and conducts the focus group.
  • The observers. Observers can be notetakers or members of the product team who want to see the focus group firsthand.
  • The technician who is responsible for setting up the recording and data collection equipment.
  • The participants in the focus group.

You may want to hold 3-4 focus groups so your results are not the results of the particular dynamics of a single group. If there are distinct subgroups, you may want to run a set of focus groups with each subgroup.

Materials Needed

  • Focus group sessions are generally videotaped so you need a facility with video and audio equipment.
  • The seating for a focus group should allow participants to see each other (a round table is useful) and also allow the easy recording of the entire group.
  • Flip charts, adhesive notes, colored marking pens, and other materials for capturing the comments of participants and making those comments visible to the entire group.
  • Audio recording can be a problem when you have people who are quiet or have heavy accents so it is useful to have multiple microphones that can be adjusted to pick up voices from different locations in the room.
  • If you are conducting an on-line focus group, you will need the appropriate software which allows the participants to chat and see the chats of others and also allows the focus group team to send questions to the moderator.

Who Can Facilitate

Moderators with experience and strong interviewing skills are critical to the success of a focus group. Some of the attributes of a good moderator are:

  • A good memory for names.
  • Some background in the domain (especially for more technical products).
  • The ability to pick out good/new ideas from a group and prompt the participants for more details, insights, and explanations.
  • Enthusiasm and energy (this is important).
  • The ability to deal with strong and weak personalities. Many references on focus group methodologies stress the importance of dealing with strong personalities, but it is also important to be able to encourage the quiet and shy participants.

Common Problems

  • Focus group moderation is difficult. An experienced moderator is important for a successful focus group.
  • The results of a focus group depend on the interaction between the participants and the moderator, and poor moderating can lead to distorted data and misleading conclusions.
  • A single dominant participant can cripple the focus group by intimidating the other participants into agreement. The moderator must work hard to prevent dominant personalities from monopolizing the discussion.
  • The participants for a focus group should be reasonably homogenous since the discussion of opinions and attitudes is facilitated by having the participants share some type of common bond. If the people are too divergent, you may end up with few common threads.
  • It is often useful to overbook a focus group by about 20% since some people may just decide not to show up, get caught with late meetings, or traffic.
  • While refreshments are often a minor incentive and important for making the participants feel comfortable, consider keeping the food outside the focus group room so the focus stays on the topic rather than the food.

Data Analysis Approach

Post-session Review Notes

Immediately after a focus group session, the moderator should walk through the guide and review the trends, questions and comments for each topic Consider listing the major issues that emerge.

Editing and Tabulation of Data

Doing a quick review of the notes and any participant response forms soon after a session to look for moderator or participant errors. Videotapes can be consulted if the notes are unclear and questionnaires can be reviewed for obvious inconsistencies.

There are two major types of data coding, quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative codes can come from closed questions or exercise data. After coding, questionnaire and other data that can be tabulated into summary tables showing frequencies, percentages, and other descriptive statistics.

 Qualitative data come from open-ended questions and the dialog between moderator and participants. Setting up codes and categories for open-ended and verbal data begins with the transcription of all the open-ended and verbal data. As data are transcribed, the analysis team (often the moderator) will categorize responses into trends, issues, and topics. Some common categories in HCI include (Kuniavsky, 2003):

  • Mental models
  • Metaphors
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Stories and quotations
  • Problems and issues
  • Differences between competitive products
  • Differences between different groups or subgroups

Next Steps

Incorporate the findings of the focus group with data from field studies, surveys, and other HCI methods.


Sources and contributors: 
Chauncey Wilson.
Released: 2006-03
© 2010 Usability Professionals Association