Benefits of Usability Focus Groups

In the last few years, there seems to be a big movement away from usability focus groups as a serious testing technique, especially when it comes to digital things like web services and software. Well, I can kind of see their point, but I also think that their drive to totally be rid of this is going to cause them far more problems than it solves.

See, usability focus groups are actually very helpful in many ways, in spite of the downsides that come with it. So, I’d like everyone to indulge me in a look at focus groups, and why they are actually helpful, even if not as the dominant thing being used.

I’ll go over the shortcomings first, though, to be fair and acknowledge the valid point that relying solely on this isn’t wise in this century.

The Downsides:

Well, the biggest and most obvious downside is that this is an expensive practice to undertake. It requires actual human beings to all be present in a single location. There has to be some kind of compensation in most cases for the volunteers, and facilities have to be there for them to have a place to be during the process.

It requires testing personnel to interact with and record data from the groups, and to administer the tests, as they were. These people require payment, naturally.

Sure, there’s a big industry in professional testing with focus groups. Companies hire out to them, and then managing the expenses and resources above falls on that service provide. But the costs are still there, and passed on to your company. At least, a solid eighty percent of them are unavoidably so.

On top of this, the data, unless handled by a very strict computer form the group members fill out, is fuzzy. Fuzzy “people” output data is not really intelligible to software which can show in hard data representations, the analytics desired.

Lastly, when they know their opinion is being heard, people tend to exaggerate their praise and their condemnation both. This is the Heisenberg effect in full swing.

The Benefits:

Wow, I made it sound like the most impractical thing in the world, didn’t I? Well it is, when it’s all you use, and you’re pouring a lot of testing into that technique. It gets expensive and too vague on a giant singular scale.

But, supplemented by other usability gauging techniques (which we’ve looked at before), and it provides the crucial real recording of a detached user’s experience.

Only through this real interaction with people off the street can you actually see how the “average Joe” will respond to your design. Does it confuse people who’re not experts on your specific design, or does it lend to quick adoption and happy repeated use? Only a focus group can show this.

Along with this, it also brings in controlled demographic testing as well. Only with focus groups wisely chosen can you ensure that every age, cultural background, professional background and so on that you perceive as your main target, can you see how well you line up.

Only with this model can you also, by selecting control groups of people not in your target demographics, can you discover extended marketability as well.


No matter its problems and lack of viability as the singular testing model, usability focus groups are the only way to measure some things. They always have been, and they always will be.


Jessica Miller
Jessica is the Lead Author & Editor of UsabilityLab Blog. Jessica writes for the UsabilityLab blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to usability.
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