Focus Groups, User Experience and the yellow radio

Or are focus groups worthless.

I can’t help but agree with Erika Hall’s recent post; Focus groups are worthless.

Emma Boulton’s alternate view saying let’s not dismiss them out of hand, Focus groups aren’t worthless says they make great platforms for user centred design.

I thought I’d share my experiences.

Over the last however many years I’ve conducted all kinds of qualitative research. Focus groups, interviews, user observation, ethnography, diary studies and for me the results fall into two main buckets.

What people think and what people do.

An old research sage I used to work with told me the story of a focus group run by an electronics manufacturer.

The focus group was used to help design a radio. Specifically what colour that radio should be. Everyone agreed that yellow was the best colour. It showed the brand was ‘young’, ‘alive’, ‘vibrant’, ‘exciting’. All agreed yellow was the way forward.

On the way out of the group the moderator offered each participant the choice of colour of radio, yellow or black, to take home with them.

The majority took the black radio.

This story may be research myth but it does show the important difference in research techniques. Asking people what they think may not help you understand what they do.

The most useful user experience research is supports designing for behaviour and interaction. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for attitudinal research, but focus groups are not going to help you understand how people will behave.

When it comes to research many in the advertising and media world the only technique often used is the focus group. We can be similarly blinkered in user experience with one on one user research being the only technique we use. The old adage that ‘to a man with a hammer everything looks like nail’ applies.

It’s about choosing the right research technique for the right results. Emma’s suggestion of the research funnel should help inform the technique that will give the best results.

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