Content Strategy Gut Checks: The Focus Group

Content Strategy Gut Checks: The Focus Group is the second in a series of six posts discussing the testing of content and content strategy models in usability and user testing. Did you miss the first post? Read Part One: Content Strategy Gut Checks: The Café Test.

“The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions,” — Claude Levi-Strauss

Conference Room - Austrian National Library, Vienna Augustinertrakt (photo by Stefan Strahammer)

The way I see it, Claude Levi-Strauss’ statement sums up how I view testing, and (in a way) content strategy. The questions we craft and ask of users are crucial for informing the type of data we ultimately use and produce for our digital experiences. And when it comes to posing those questions to gut check our content and content strategy, one of the best tools at our disposal is the focus group.

For starters, I think it’s important to point out that focus groups are NOT usability tests. Focus groups are what I refer to as user tests or user dialogues, which have very different goals from usability testing. A good usability test should focus more on observation and provide us answers with how well a user was able to use and experience both the interface and the data itself. Conversely, if we want to assess users thoughts, feelings or attitudes about a product or our Web site, we’d leverage a focus group.

It’s the difference of what users say vs. what they do — and in the best of all possible worlds, we’ll be able to leverage both insights when planning for content strategy.

When To Use Focus Groups

I personally believe focus groups should be performed early in any web project to both help discover insights into your target audience and prove out any assumptions you might have made regarding their Personal-Behavioral Context or Situational Context (did you really think you’d get through a post on my site without me making a plug for context?).

Also, consider using a focus group if:

  • You need more insights into specific user situations that may require content
  • You have little or no knowledge about your target market, its content expectations or its web/wireless/mobile habits
  • You’re developing new part of the site or rolling out a new content feature but aren’t sure what the reaction will be
  • How To Get Started

    Invite 6 to 12 people to participate in for each focus group session. Depending on your budget or the scope of your project you may need several sessions to get a representative sampling of your targets. Pre-screen to be sure participants are from your target via questionnaire. It is absolutely crucial that the people you invite be from your target demographic. If they aren’t, you’re wasting time and client dollars.

    In your invitation to participants, do your best to provide a high-level agenda and include any issues that you’ll be tackling during your session. The focus group itself should last 60 to 90 minutes (any longer and you’d best buy them a meal and plan to bring them back the next day).

    Prepare up front. State the purpose of the focus group and provide an outline to the day’s activities. If it’s required of your client (or if you just want to cover all your bases) have them sign a consent form after you’ve given your explanation (e.g.: [PDF]) and bring it to the group. Collect your consent prior to giving them access to other members of the group or the focus group room.

    Set up the focus group in an room or location that offers little to no distraction. You want the participants’ full attention since the end results will be analytical reports. Try to set your test group around a table to encourage conversation. You want the group to have the ability to make chatter and if it’s a circular or ovular table, you’ll have a better vantage point to document facial reactions or pose immediate follow up questions.

    Before you begin the questioning, ask the participants to introduce themselves and/or wear nametags. Focus groups are a tag team effort (you need a strong moderator and someone to document findings, discretely if possible). It’s the moderator’s job to be aware of the energy in the room. They also need to step in if one person is dominating a conversation and allow for cognitive breaks when it appears they’re needed. The moderator has to keep discussions flowing and keep the group focused on the issues you want to document.

    The recorder should only focus on documenting the findings, and he should capture facial expressions, audio, notes on findings etc. I’ve always found it helpful to color code notes per participant or attach a headshot to individual notes when I’m acting as a recorder in a focus group.

    Questions, Questions, Questions

    A focus group will only be successful if the questions asked are open and neutral. The wording is crucial, so channel your inner Claude Levi-Strauss and be the wise man. Pay special attention to the inflection and tone taken posing a question to the group. The wrong wording or inflection might taint the responses.

    Ask the target audience about how they use the web, what their expectations are of what types of content would be on your Web site. If it’s a new section, get their thoughts on how successful their efforts have been in seeking the proposed content. If they have used that type of content, document their experiences. What worked? What didn’t? What would they have preferred to see? It’s here that we start to find the bits that we can apply to situational context and scratch at those oh so elusive behaviors.

    Other questions a moderator could pose to a focus group that help influence content strategy include:

  • What types of content do you expect to find when accessing [BRAND, SERVICE, TASK] using a [NAME of DEVICE]?
  • Describe a positive experience you’ve had with [BRAND, SERVICE, TASK]. What made it a positive experience?
  • Describe a negative experience you’ve had with [BRAND, SERVICE, TASK]. What made it a negative experience?
  • Describe a [SITUATION, NEED, TASK] that required [BRAND, SERVICE, WEB SITE, TASK].
  • There are tons of questions and paths that can be followed, but that would be a MUCH longer post.


    Focus groups are for gathering thoughts, feelings or attitudes. That means you need qualitative analysis reports. These should be written for each session. The reports should contain the relevant background of participants who attended individual groups. Dedicate a single report to each session and be sure to have any questions you may have gathered in the screening questionnaire included in your reporting as well.

    If you videotape the session, use clips and captures in your reporting to emphasize thoughts and support any hypothesis you had about content, data and design needs.

    The more data you have to work with, the easier it will be to make relevant Behavioral/Situational personas to apply to your content strategy project. Client deliverables might include an executive summary, or quotes and images from the session, but the full report should be more useful to your design team and content/digital strategists.

    Summing It Up

    Focus groups are meant to help predict consumer responses to a site or feature. It’s crucial to know how consumers feel about a project prior to really getting down to the heavier design phase and focus groups are a great forum to getting those feelings out into the open. They require patience and a really solid moderator who can manage conflict and keep the group on the task at hand.

    I fully believe great focus groups can be done independent of agencies that specialize in it. An independent content strategist need only be sure he or she has specific plan and goals in mind prior to doing the focus group. If you don’t think you can handle the moderation, find someone internally who can manage conflict or multiple personalities.

    Even if you do select an agency to perform your focus group testing, make sure you have influence over the questions asked. A good content strategist should walk away knowing the situations that will call for content and have a better idea of the mix that will be needed to address those situations.

    What are your experiences with focus groups? Do you find them useful in planning for content strategies? Drop your thoughts into the comments below.

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