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.

    Content Strategy Gut Checks: The Café Test

    Content Strategy Gut Checks: The Café Test is the first in a series of six blog posts accounting for the testing of content and content strategy models in usability testing.

    Content strategy can be a long and drawn out process. There is an incredible amount of work that goes into developing and implementing content strategy, so it always frustrates me to learn that many clients are being provided with usability tests that only focus on the user interface and the navigation of a Web site.

    Cup of Coffee and iPad in a German Cafe

    This isn’t entirely surprising, as many sites are not created using a “content out approach (see also: @Malarkey), and often times content testing isn’t suggested or performed until post launch — a disastrous folly in its own right.

    I’m not advocating that EVERY site should be designed in a content out way, but I do believe that content strategy and its eventual product are deserving of some very specific questions and equal time in usability testing. And one of the best methods for getting a gut check for a site’s content (and content strategy), especially in the early days of your project, is the Café Test.

    How To Get Started

    If you’re not familiar with café testing, it’s exactly what you would assume it might be. It requires the tester to plop himself in a high traffic area, like a café (preferably one where your target user might be) to approach potential users. The person giving the test should use a sign to attract potential participants or come up with a clever hustle to draw them in. Coffee, tea, beer or $5 usually does the trick.

    Once you have a properly imbibed and willing participant, ask for a few demographic questions. How old are they? What is their education level? Have they participated in a study like this before? What do they do for a living? Have them sign a consent form if your company/client requires it (I’ll provide an example consent form a in my next post).

    After you’ve got the basic info and signed consent, load up your site via laptop, iPad or your mobile and let them spend some time interacting with your content, not just the site itself.

    Should your study require it, direct them to perform a few tasks using the site’s intended UI and PAY CLOSE ATTENTION. This is where café testing gets a little anthropological. Take photos or video if they’ll let you. Study how they interact with the site, paying close attention to how much they read, what their initial impressions are and how they move through the content. Allow them a good five to 10 minutes to interact with the content and then follow their play time with a few questions.

    Questions, Questions, Questions

    Café tests should always ask specific questions about the content, but they should be kept simple. Remember, this isn’t a focus group, it’s a gut check to see if we’re on the right track and we’ve only bought them a cup of coffee. If we bought them dinner or paid for them to miss work, we could take greater liberties with our requests.

    Some sample questions could be:
    1. How easy was the [content] for you to understand?
    2. Did you believe the [content] was interesting? Explain why or why not.
    3. What was the most helpful piece of [content] on the page?
    4. Could the [content] have been organized, written or presented in a different way to be more useful?
    5. What do you think the [content’s] intended purpose was?

    (NOTE: [content] could be anything in this case. It could be a specific video, form, photo gallery, text, etc.)

    These questions should be written up or recorded and then organized into a report.


    The goal of the café test is to obtain a gut check and document the informal glimpses into the perceptions of the public when it comes to your site and its content. They are most useful when tasks are simple enough that formal usability testing may be overkill, or when time is of the essence (like, we launch next week OMG!). The downside is that the target users are not always available.

    Deliverables for site stakeholders and (maybe) clients include: spreadsheets, photos, videos, quotes and qualitative comments.

    Summing It Up

    During the initial stages of your project, café testing can be especially helpful because it’s relatively cheap, and the results will help you get priorities in order or disprove a hypothesis about user behaviors or their potential for comprehension early on.

    That said, café testing requires three things to be really successful — well-defined questions, a reasonable testing window (no more than 15 minutes of your subject’s time should be taken) and a decent sampling of users that meet your demographic. If you don’t know where to find them, ask a user. People like to herd and flock, so chances are your users can point you in the right direction.

    While the café test isn’t the most scientific of models we could use to analyze our users and content, it starts to give us some early impressions and further hone our strategic goals as we build our site. They’re also a lot of fun to administer and who knows, you just might make a new friend.

    Next up, we’ll take a look at First Impressions testing. Stay tuned.

    Photo By: Johannes Kleske. Used via: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

    Marriage Lessons: Content Strategy and Information Architecture

    Sometimes, the marriage of content strategy and user experience can be a tricky thing. The relationship forces an individual primarily focused on making a site usable, functional and beautiful to play nice with a strategist, who is focused on what populates that lovely work of code. Often times the two practices seem to be at constant odds with one another, but when content strategy and user experience work with common purpose (to make the Web a more usable place), amazing things can happen.

    The secret to a happy and healthy UX/Content Strategy marriage comes not only with shared purpose, but lies within the ability for one to be an advocate for the other’s work. I can say with no reservations that without the guidance of Erika, my partner of the last three years, that my work would have suffered. She makes me appear to be much smarter than I actually am and aside from being a constant advocate for content strategy, you couldn’t ask for a nicer person to have to spend your days with.

    So you can imagine how unhappy I am to report that she left me (well, the agency) on Friday.

    To say that Erika’s departure is painful is a gross understatement. You see, there’s a special bond (a link if you will) that digital geeks who seriously LOVE building sites share. I believe that we worked so well together because for as long as I’ve known her, Erika has approached Web sites with content in mind.

    Erika and I have shared similar paths, as did anyone who began working with code and Web sites in the 90s. At that time, coders had to be cognizant of the content, because there were no other members of a web team. We were the “Webmasters,” “Web Editors” and “Site Masters.” We were the sole owners of the code, the copywriters and the editors of content and the presence we were called upon to create. We had no choice than to be intimately connected to the design and the material that populated it.

    It wasn’t until the web started evolving beyond “brochure ware” that we were called to start thinking about content differently for web users. During that time, UX started down a different path and content strategy began to emerge, but for Erika, and many other UX pros, content strategy was already embedded into their DNA and they’re better for it.

    Recently, the explosion of focus on content strategy has brought much attention to the space and folks who didn’t have this early experience in design (and even several who did) are starting to get territorial over deliverables and responsibilities. A lot of content strategists and UX pros have started writing about the relationship and exploring it in greater detail. For the most part, I believe the discussions have been positive.

    Two strong examples of the positive looks that come to mind include: Kristina Halvorson’s article for UX Mag and my Campbell-Ewald colleague Chris Moritz’s talk on the Overlaps and Underpinnings of CS and UX.

    These are great places to start and both remind us that there is room for both the user experience professional and the content strategist to do their work. We just have to remember that we all have a common goal … to make the Web a more useful and usable place.

    Consequently, Campbell-Ewald is looking for a top-notch information architect. You’ll get to work alongside people who love the interactive space and are doing some fantastic work in content strategy and interactive design. Check out the job listing and come work with us in the Mitten: Information Architect Job Posting.

    Hug your IA today!

    Chain Link Photo used via Creative Commons License. Photographer: Matti Mattila