FOCUSING YOUR FOCUS GROUPS: Ten Ways They Can Enhance Discovery

January 14, 2013, 3:17 pm

I saw that there was a session at midwinter talking about focus groups. Since I won’t be there I wanted to take a few minutes and share my thoughts. I don’t have the original announcement, but I was disappointed with the phrasing. It asked something like are focus groups effective? I would prefer a conversation around how to use focus groups effectively.


I have found thematic conversations with various user (and non-user) segments to be an important component of my discovery strategy. Focus groups often get knocked because of three main things: loud people dominate the discussion, people tend to tell you what they think you want to hear, and people can’t imagine breakthrough change. Those are all legit criticisms, however, if you plan according you can neutralize those issues.


Students working through an exercise during a focus group at Virginia Tech.

The problem isn’t focus groups– it’s the way focus groups are conducted. I highly recommend the book Moderating to the Max. It offers lots of activities to help create conversation aids and tangible results (like the service bull’s-eye exercise, personas, etc) and it provides good advice about shaping, facilitating, and managing the discussion. I can also recommend Tinkertoys—the back section offers a great framework for focus groups. And I guess I can promote my own book since I have a chapter on marketing research with a section dedicated to focus group practices as well.


Let’s get to it. Focus groups are for learning. Use them to uncover the unknown:


  1. Environmental Scan/Brand Perception. When I arrived at VT I had a lot to learn about the library and the campus. Talking with students helped me understand their perspective. You can read reports, you can look at data, you can talk with colleagues, and you can observe users, but unless you talk to them about their feelings you can’t really uncover where your library (brand) stands in the hearts and minds of users. Your library might be well used but not well liked; it’s good to know the difference.
  2. Identifying Service Gaps. Once you gauge where things stand you can start to find and address problems. Focus groups are very helpful for identifying potential issues. Here is a VT example. I’m told that the main library has more wireless access points than any other building on campus. In the last year we actually increased our capacity. This is something we like to tout—but over and over again the students I speak with talk about being dropped from the network and related wireless access problems. Wireless is frustrating for them— that’s the reputation that’s building. Focus groups can help expose the flaws in your thinking (the overconfidence about your service levels) and be useful for identifying breakdowns or miscommunications.
  3. Awareness. What do and don’t people know about the library? Is your communication strategy effective? What do (or don’t) students remember from instruction sessions? If you run a campaign about going to 24/7 and no one knows it—then you have a problem. If you hang a bunch of posters in your building and your regular users aren’t seeing them—then you have a problem.
  4. Confusion. What do students find confusing? People don’t want to appear foolish in front of others so using some of the exercises can enable honest feedback through anonymity.
  5. What’s memorable? One of my favorite books is The Culture Code—it describes a great technique of helping participants work through the obvious answers and arriving at a deeper and complex understanding of a theme. I used this a lot at GT and the overarching association toward that library was productivity. It wasn’t about books or technology or reference librarians or group rooms—it was about getting things done. If we kept that in our sights and in our communication streams we’d be on target, on brand.
  6. Use patterns over time. I’ve always been interested in how use patterns evolve. How do first-years use and perceive the library compared to forth-years? Or dorm residents compared to commuters? Engineering majors and humanities majors? Usage is often based on proximity- do students attending class near the library visit more frequently? Or it could be assignments—if you have a lot of group work one semester the library becomes more of a destination for you. A side product of this theme is learning about other locations around campus where academic work is conducted and why those spaces are preferred.
  7. Tough stuff. It has been helpful for me to learn about tough assignments, tough courses and tough professors. This can aid instructional and communication efforts. This is all part of understanding the learner experience.
  8. Technology. What apps are you using? What devices do you have and which ones are you excited about? What software do you use for your assignments? Do you use the various Google tools? Tell me about your experiences with eBooks and streaming services? Oh, Facebook is for old folks, what social websites are emerging?
  9. Validate other data. Focus groups can help validate findings from LibQUAL+ or other surveys, as well as observational data. I like to think of assessment as triangulation: the more data and insights you can gather the better off you are.
  10.  Vision & Priorities. While we can’t expect horse-and-buggy thinkers to give us automobiles, students do provide valuable ideas. They can also help focus priorities. Something I’ve heard over and over again at VT is the need for more whiteboards– whiteboards on every surface: floors, walls, tables, etc. This isn’t radical, but it reinforced a need that wasn’t as high of a priority in our design vision. Another common theme is a “zen garden-like” space- a chill zone to escape from the toil of work. I’ve also had a student offer a collections suggestion asking for quick-review books on general topics such calculus, physics, economics, etc. She imagined these packaged near a circ desk with a several day loan period. We often think about bestsellers in this way, but here  was an unexpected interest.


Wrap up: Focus groups won’t give you the full picture, but they can help fill in some portions of it. If you use these conversations as a discovery tool, they can be a valuable part of your innovation strategy.

Have fun in Seattle everyone. Someone visit The Sound Garden for me.


This entry was posted in Assessment&Evaluation, Marketing&Outreach, R&D. Bookmark the permalink.