Digital/Online Marketing Communications Strategy

Why Focus Groups Don’t Work For Usability Testing

By on April 14, 2015 in user experience with 0 Comments

image of heads and speech bubblesWhen you seek out information or buy things on the web how often do you do so with a crowd of strangers helping you out?

My guess is, never.

That’s the simplest way to explain why you don’t want to use focus groups to find out how well your website works.

Using the web is a personal experience

We gather information, make transactions, post comments and complete any number of tasks on the web on our own. It’s a personal experience, not a group activity. The aim of a web usability test is to watch how someone uses your site in conditions that are similar to how that person uses the web in everyday life. That means, one person at a time.

Focus groups are group interviews. They can help you glean how people think they will respond to your site. They may enable you to gather feelings and perceptions about your site or brand, but they can’t show you how people actually use your site.

As Mike Kuniavsky, states in his book, Observing the User Experience: “There’s no good way for a group of people to tell you whether they will be able to use a certain interface or a certain feature. They can tell you whether they like the idea of it, but they can’t show you whether they can use it in practice. ”

Focus groups can’t tell you how your site works

There are several reasons why focus groups are not a substitute for usability testing, including:

Tendency for groupthink: When two or more people have the same opinion about something, others are often persuaded to feel the same way. It’s easy for groupthink to set in. Also, certain people may be reluctant to openly disagree with majority opinion.

Domination syndrome: If someone in the group has a strong personality, that person can overshadow and dominate the conversation.

Inability to test out tasks in an appropriate setting: Two or more people can’t be at the wheel when test-driving a car, and the same goes for completing tasks on the web. With focus groups the website is usually projected on a screen so that everyone can see it, and that’s not how we use the web in real life.

People say one thing but do another: In their Handbook of Usability Testing, co-authors Jeffery Rubin and Dana Chisnell rightly observe: “People in focus groups are reporting what they feel like telling you, which is almost always different from what they actually do.”

The bottom line

I’ve lost track of how many times, after suggesting the need to conduct usability tests of a website, that someone will say, “OK, we’ll do a focus group.” It’s a common response from those who don’t understand what usability testing is all about. But now you know better.

Bottom line: Focus groups may be helpful for gathering opinions, but they’re not the right setting for observing real behavior. They can’t show you how your actually site works.

Your two cents

Do you know of other reasons why focus groups are not a replacement for usability testing? Comments welcome.

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About the Author

About the Author: Deni Kasrel is seasoned (slightly spicy) specialist in digital/online communications. .

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