When ‘no’ is a positive word
The purpose of a focus group is to get a quick, valuable snapshot of how users perceive your product. Do they get it? Do they like it? Would they change it in any way? Running a focus group may seem easy – it’s just a matter of getting people in a room and asking them some questions, right? Wrong, it’s not as simple as that.
Gaining an understanding of what people really want is hard. Often, people will say they want/think/believe one thing and do something that totally contradicts that. In a focus group, many participants will nod and smile and say everything is fine when in fact they don’t like a product and can’t use it. Given how difficult it can be to get people to say what they really think and feel, are focus groups any use? Yes, but only if participants feel free to say the word ‘no.’
Humans are social creatures. In a focus group, they are not just answering questions, they’re interacting with you and the other participants, trying to project a certain image, trying to please you, trying to be helpful. If it’s your design they’re criticising, then they may well be concerned about hurting your feelings – this is the main reason why it’s not a good idea to ask designers to carry out research on their own work.
Feedback is truly valuable when it challenges your faulty assumptions. If you aren’t asking the right questions, or your participants don’t feel comfortable, they will just agree with everything you say, no matter how wrong it is, and you will come away from the focus group knowing no more than when you started.
You want participants to tell you when you’re wrong, when something you think about them isn’t true. But saying ‘no’ and contradicting someone’s assumptions is surprisingly hard, especially in a situation where people don’t know each other well.
So, if you’re exploring an important assumption, and a participant says ‘no’ to what you’re saying, you know you’re getting a good insight. You know that you have asked the right question and that the participant feels comfortable enough with you and strongly enough about the issue to contradict you. Your assumptions are being challenged, and when faulty assumptions are cleared away they leave space for truly innovative insights, both in terms of design and concept. The ‘no’ signals the arrival of a new idea.
How to create a focus group environment where participants feel they can say ‘no.’
- Choose your participants carefully – screen them in advance to ensure that the group is well balanced in terms of age, gender and other important characteristics so that it doesn’t become dominated by one or two voices.
- Clearly define your research objectives. If you know what you are looking for, you will know what questions to ask.
- Plan your script and think through in advance any points at which the discussion might become heated or contentious – be prepared with ways to explore an issue further, if relevant, or to divert the conversation if not.
- Emphasise the fact that this is not your design and that you are keen to hear honest feedback.
- If you are nervous, don’t show it. Participants need to feel comfortable with you – you should appear confident, warm and friendly.
- Listen carefully and make it clear you are listening – make eye contact, smile, nod. Don’t write while people are speaking and don’t plough through your script regardless of what participants say – if they feel you’re not hearing them, they’ll quickly become disengaged.
- Ask clarifying questions on a regular basis. These questions should build on what participants have already said and should either ask them confirm what you think they’re saying, e.g. ‘Your view is that this format is more effective than the previous one?’ or to expand on something, e.g. ‘You think this format doesn’t work well, why is that?’
- Get the balance between listening and controlling the flow of the session right. You need to be attentive and encouraging, but also have enough authority that you can politely cut a person off if they are dominating the conversation.
The ability to facilitate a focus group in which participants feel able to say no takes time and experience to develop. You need to know how and when to ask another question, to clarify what the participant has said without making them feel interrogated or irritated. You need to be able to think quickly so that you can keep control of the session while listening to answers, coming up with new questions and monitoring who has and hasn’t spoken. It can be a juggling act, but done well a good focus group where everyone gets stuck in to an interesting discussion can be very satisfying and valuable.