May 23, 2005 Program Summary
by Adele Sommers

Using Focus Groups in Technical Communication

Speaker Robyn LettersThis riveting discussion of focus groups turned out to be one of the most multifaceted explorations of a topic we have ever conducted!

The evening began with an in-depth overview of focus groups given by expert Robyn Letters, left, principal of Opinion Studies in San Luis Obispo (see speaker details below).

Robyn zeroed in on one particular way in which focus groups are commonly used — in marketing contexts, by companies interested in collecting consumer feedback to help evaluate and fine-tune their products and services. As part of this profile, Robyn showed video clips of sessions she has facilitated on behalf of local client companies. Other areas in which Robyn and her colleagues perform opinion research include health care, scientific arenas, and mock juries.

Robyn's overview was adroitly expanded with practical applications offered by event guest Michael Boyer, VP of Operations at Web Associates in San Luis Obispo and a previous SLO STC event panelist. His company routinely conducts focus groups and similar feedback-gathering sessions with clients, which include Apple Computer and Hewlett-Packard. The techniques range from traditional face-to-face focus groups (conducted by impartial, third party facilitators) to online surveys, personal interviews, and Webinars. The latter can simultaneously engage people all over the world in viewing and discussing a particular interface design, even if the participants can't actually see each other.

We culminated the evening with a fascinating panel discussion involving Robyn and Cal Poly staff and faculty members Erika Rogers, Mary Somerville, Helen Chu, and Dave Gillette (please see speaker details, below). The Cal Poly panelists have been developing a dynamic model for conducting single-person usability testing that, once completed, shifts to having participants fill out individual questionnaires and then proceeds to focus group debriefings. The focus groups converge on discussing the real purposes people would have for using that particular interface (not just the placement of the buttons, for example). This synergistic combination seems to produce the best that each method has to offer in the way of rich participant feedback.

The Cal Poly model involved a three-phased approach with 1) Mary and her colleagues conducting usability tests and focus groups with student and faculty groups, 2) Erika and her students analyzing the data, and 3) Helen and her IT department implementing the student findings and recommendations. Dave noted that this type of closed-loop process helps participants feel that any concerns they express will be taken seriously instead of simply getting lost in the ether. In addition, this model also can minimize the tendency for “group think” to occur in poorly structured focus groups, and can help balance the playing field on politically charged topics.

All in all, the event provided attendees with intriguing new ideas and interesting slants on this very valuable subject! Below are some of the key ideas presented at various points during the evening.

Keys to planning effective focus groups

  • When to use: Companies and other organizations use focus groups when they want to gather insights that are richer and more in-depth than would typically emerge from surveys or one-on-one interviews. Involving several participants in a group setting enables people to hear each other's viewpoints, which can spark awarenesses and reactions that might not otherwise surface.
  • Selecting a facilitator: Since the overall process is fairly complex, and involves significant preparation and follow-up, using an experienced moderator is highly recommended. This also helps ensure the neutrality of the facilitator as an independent third party. Effective facilitators often have training in psychology, communication, open-ended interviewing, group dynamics, and/or active listening. Their ultimate job during a session is to develop group rapport and promote an atmosphere of trust and spontaneity, allowing participants to feel comfortable disclosing personal information and reactions. Experienced facilitators attempt to blend in with the participants — to become a "beige" personality while encouraging the group members to speak up. Ideally, the facilitators will share some demographic characteristics with participants.
  • Focus group size: The ideal group contains 8-12 people. It should be small enough to be intimate but large enough to be relatively diverse.
  • Homogeneity: Differences in ages, gender, and other characteristics can sometimes disrupt the discussion process. When designing a focus group project, the researcher should give thought to the demographic makeup of the group and how best to achieve some homogeneity in the final panel. Trial and error may reveal the best mix of participants for a particular study. Depending on the purpose of the session, it may require recruiting a fairly narrow spectrum of participants (for example, only middle-aged females who shop at one particular store). Participants should not know each other in advance, since they're actually less likely to be candid around friends and acquaintances than they are around strangers.
  • Recruiting techniques: Participant screening and recruitment frequently occurs by phone some 10-14 days in advance. Prospective participants should be randomly selected, such as from a phone book or from a database of previous participants and referrals. Clients may request that participants be drawn from a specific pool of customers or businesses, but that pool must be large enough to allow for disqualifications due to schedule or interest conflicts. Incentive payments can range from $50 to $75 for a typical two-hour session.
  • Ideal participants: Recruiters seek people who meet the specific demographic or product usage criteria. They should not be people who know each other or have previously participated in the same or similar study.
  • Developing discussion questions: The facilitator usually works with the client in advance to identify goals and determine the questions to pose. Usually, only about five or six key questions from the list can be adequately discussed in a two-hour period. The facilitator also may want to become relatively familiar with any technical or proprietary jargon before the session.

Conducting focus group sessions

  • Comfort level: The facilitator's main job is to draw out the participants so each person feels comfortable participating in the discussion. The facilitator may subtly need to give more eye contact to quieter people and less eye contact to more verbal members, for example, to keep the discussion balanced. Seating the participants at varying distances away from the facilitator is one way to control the amount of eye contact.
  • Warm up phase: An important aspect of focus groups is getting participants “calibrated.” To help achieve optimal comfort and balanced participation, the facilitator may spend the first half of the focus group session engaging the group in low-key “warm-up” conversation.
  • Question phase: Once the participants seem ready, the facilitator begins asking the predefined questions, but in as natural a way as possible (that is, minimally referring to notes). For sessions designed to evaluate products, the facilitator may pass around samples for participants to handle. Questions can include how much participants think the products cost, and any features they like or dislike. The facilitator asks spontaneous follow-up questions that draw out more detail as the participants bounce ideas off of each other. However, he or she must know when to be silent and wait for the group to respond, rather than try to carry on a constant conversation.
  • Observing and recording: In customized focus group facilities, observers view the session from an adjacent room through a one-way mirror. In environments without mirrors, sessions are videotaped with the live output displayed on a TV monitor in a nearby room. In either case, executives or focus group sponsors may be present to covertly observe the sessions, and may even join the session at the end to actually meet and chat with the participants. Typically, focus groups are audio and videotaped for later review.

Analyzing data, following up, and combining techniques

  • Analyzing and using data: Robyn's wrap-up procedure typically entails reviewing the video tapes and preparing a report based on her team's findings of the major themes in the discussion. If the budget allows, she will also have a transcript prepared. The report may include video clips relating to each theme, and an audio recording of the entire session. The level of detail provided in the report varies from client to client. One of the client's uses of the summary data may be to better identify the ideal target market for a particular product or service.
  • Follow-up calls: Occasionally, it's appropriate to follow up with participants by phone about two weeks after the session. The purpose would be to check whether each participant still feels positively about a given product, for example.
  • Repeating sessions: Because an individual focus group can be an anomaly, Robyn recommends the completion of at least two sessions on a given topic. Such a design allows verification of themes from group to group and provides more reliable information. To help verify conclusions derived from a given project, clients sometimes commission subsequent sessions to discuss the same topic. Although subsequent groups typically don't involve the same people, each group should be drawn from the same demographic pool.
  • Combining techniques: Since group discussion can influence participant responses to some extent, it's a good idea to use focus groups in conjunction with other types of studies. Other research methods also can shed light on different aspects of the same topic. For example:

    In the Web Associates model, a qualitative study might kick off the process in the form of a focus group (which entails collecting opinions in a dynamic, observational mode and analyzing the information more intuitively). This research may continue with a quantitative study using a survey (which entails collecting the opinions of a reasonably large group of people through a structured instrument, and analyzing the data statistically). Any ambiguities in the quantitative study results may call for another qualitative study (such as a focus group) to clarify the findings.

    In the hybrid Cal Poly model, individual participants first test the usability of a Web site, then complete a questionnaire. They then provide more feedback in a focus group setting where they can jointly review and discuss aspects of the Web site while viewing it via a projection system.


Focus groups are powerful tools that can provide insights into public opinion as no other technique can. As research-based methodologies, they require relatively sophisticated protocols for many purposes for which they're used. But as the Cal Poly panelists have shown, they can be combined with other techniques in flexible and relatively informal ways to achieve rich results. These hybrid approaches appear to represent the cutting edge of research design for specialized purposes such as usability testing.

Photograph provided by Robyn Letters.

Using Focus Groups in Technical Communication
Date: Monday evening, May 23, 2005

Robyn Letters, an expert in focus groups and principal of Opinion Studies, a research firm in San Luis Obispo. For the last two decades, Robyn and Opinion Studies have worked with clients to study everything from consumer product preferences to juror attitudes. Robin is recognized as a dynamic focus group moderator as well as a creative field researcher, and she is experienced in both qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

Robyn is also an expert at designing and conducting cost-effective projects among a wide variety of populations, and has co-managed major projects for the National Science Foundation, the Agency of Health Care Policy and Research, and the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, among many others. She and her staff coordinated a major multi-stage legal study that culminated in the deliberation of 600 mock juries and the publication of Punitive Damages: How Juries Decide.

The panel also included:

  • Erika Rogers, our SLO STC usability strategic partner, a former Cal Poly professor of Computer Science, and now the Cal Poly Honors Program Coordinator;
  • Mary Somerville, Assistant Dean of Information and Instructional Services at Kennedy Library;
  • Helen Chu, Head of Digital Services (Director of IT) at Kennedy Library; and
  • Dave Gillette, professor of English at Cal Poly, the Director of the New Media Arts Program, and a member of our SLO STC board of directors.

Using Focus Groups in Technical Communication provided an overview of this valuable activity in our roles as technical communicators and information designers. Focus groups are widely used in market research in areas such as feature preferences, ad testing, and package design testing. They are also used for evaluating product and service design and testing the usability of Web sites, software systems, games, home and business equipment, and the like. Our panel of speakers gave us an overview of the following:

  • What is a focus group?
  • How does a focus group differ from a usability test, survey, or other means of gathering data?
  • How many ways can focus groups be used? (For example, marketing, interface design, opinion studies)
  • What are the best situations for using focus groups?
  • What are some guidelines for conducting them?
  • How do you collect, compile, and analyze focus group data?


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