Focus groups are some of the most useful tools in product. Learn how to be effective at leading one with Paralect Senior Product Analyst Tremis Skeete!
Product people in digital environments sometimes seem too comfortable. In fact, for PMs, dealing with internal stakeholders feels like enough work already. Leaving the office and facing actual customers can seem really daunting. But users are king!
How do we square the circle?
Besides the handful brave PMs who are happy to leave headquarters into the battlefield, there are a series of tools you can employ. For example, a good customer feedback service.
Here’s one of the most powerful ones: focus groups. Wise in product Tremis Skeete has written this guest post to explain how to include them in your toolbox. Check it out!
Meet Tremis Skeete
Current Paralect Senior Product Analyst Tremis Skeete has a long experience in the tech arena. He began as a web developer and network administrator for several organizations, where he gained experience as graphic designer, engineer and UI/UX Designer. This diverse background helped him transition into product. He spent some years working for the NYC Department of Education in the latter role, before joining nexTier Innovations as Director of Product. Finally, he joined Paralect where he advises teams on several design and marketing projects.
What is a focus group?
First of all, you might be wondering what a focus group is. Without going into too much esoteric detail, a focus group is essentially a discussion on a certain product, guided by the product’s developers and attended by potential users, stakeholders, team members, and pretty much anyone else that can offer feedback.
These discussions can be held before a product launches to gather insights that can be implemented before the launch, or after launch to see what aspects of the product can be improved.
I spent the last couple of years leading focus groups for NexTier, gathering information on not only the products that we were developing but also on our users and team members. We have been able to identify some very insightful and effective ways to get feedback from the users and team members that attend these focus groups.
Ask the Right Questions, Get Critical Feedback in The Moment
Next, you might be wondering why focus groups should be used.
In my experience at NexTier, since most of our products are platforms for enterprise-level organizations, their success largely depends on the work that we do. What we have found is that when we do focus groups with people that interact with the products that we have helped to develop, we are able to get critical feedback at the moment.
But, in order to get that critical, real-time feedback, you need to be asking the right questions. You need to be able to witness what users respond to, and how they respond. You need to be able to “read between the lines” and recognize both verbal and nonverbal cues.
In the past, we have used a few different types of feedback-gathering techniques:
- We have done product demonstrations where users get to see the product in action.
- We have conducted usability testing where users are given devices to use the product throughout the discussion.
- We have done user interviews.
- We have done design critiques.
All of these were useful, but none of them felt complete. So, we combined all of these techniques into a focus group.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
It is important to prepare in advance for your focus group:
- Arrive early and check your logistics.
- Make sure all of your writing materials are ready.
- Make sure all of your user devices, if you are using them, are operational.
- Make sure your recording equipment is ready.
- It also never hurts to have some refreshments. I will usually provide some stuff like sparkling water, dried fruit, almonds, and chocolates.
Be ready for your group. Being afraid of your audience is not an option when you’re running a focus group. Greet them as they walk through the door. Offer them refreshments. Encourage them to write their preferred name on their respective name tag. Provide them with pens and paper.
Overall, just make them feel comfortable. The more comfortable they are, the more likely they will be to open up to you about the product, and the more likely you will be to get useful feedback.
As the discussion begins, make sure you have your introduction ready. Explain the purpose of the focus group. Articulate the situational context, goals, and objectives. Have your participants introduce themselves with things like their names, job titles and descriptions, and some examples of software they typically use.
You should also introduce your not takers if you have them. You should already be recording your focus group, but I like to have someone there taking physical notes too. That way you can refer back to points in real time without having to interrupt your recording.
You want to develop a constructive relationship with your participants. Some examples of things I like to say are: “there are no wrong answers today,” “remember not to take anything that is said personally,” “feel free to share whatever comes to mind,” and “share your perspective.” Another part of developing this relationship is providing some structure to the discussion. You need to keep track of the time, keep things on topic, and avoid too many technical terms.
No Open-Ended Questions
As you start to ask questions, remember to avoid open-ended questions.
Don’t ask things like: “what did you think?” or “how did that make you feel?” Questions like these put pressure on the participants and often lead to skewed and forced responses. If you ask more specific questions, like “what could be added to this screen?” or “what would you fix about this interaction?” that guide participants into a certain scenario, they are more likely to provide honest and critical feedback.
Rather than having them throw a random response at you, you can empower them to provide specific feedback that could lead to decisions being made on the product’s development.
One of my favorite books for learning how to craft greatly closed-ended, ethnographic questions and how to interview users is Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal.
Organizing Your Questions
The questions that you ask can, for the most part, be separated into four categories.
- The first is usability and performance, which revolves around whether or not your stakeholders can use the product and how they respond to its performance.
- The next is interaction design, which revolves around your stakeholders’ understanding of what certain interactions with the product will result in.
- The next is visual design, which revolves around how pleasing and comprehend-able the product is to look at.
- The final category is content understanding, which revolves around your stakeholders’ understanding of the labeling, text, and instructions.
Five Finger Survey
Most of the focus groups I facilitate last about an hour. In the last ten minutes of that hour, I conduct what is called a Five Finger Survey.
After you’ve gone through all of the modules with the group, the Five Finger Survey provides a summary of everyone’s feelings. This can provide a fun and fast-paced questioning session that will show you feedback patterns in the group and create opportunities to ask ethnographic questions. It can also give you an opportunity to get feedback from the participants that didn’t initially talk as much as the rest.
The survey involves the speaker making statements about the product, and participants holding up anywhere from one to five fingers to represent their response.
One finger means they strongly disagree. Two fingers mean they disagree. Three fingers mean they are neutral. Four fingers mean they agree. Five fingers mean they strongly agree. Before conducting this survey, make sure that your participants understand the process. Also, make sure that you say the responses out loud for your recorder and note taker.
Once your focus group has concluded, it is important that you collect and review all of your notes and distill your findings into categories. This way you can identify high priority next steps and organize your other items in a backlog. You should also update your understanding of your user goals, challenges, and pain points, as well as your ethnographic questions, so you can follow up with participants after the focus group has ended.
There is an art to leading an effective focus group. If you ask critical questions and challenge your group to give you critical feedback, you can gain critical knowledge that can help you improve your product in the long run.
Good luck and have fun!