an older woman sat opposite a younger woman. They are both smiling.

Find out how and when to do user research activities in a group setting.

This resource is for:

  • Anyone running user research for their organisation, who is wondering if they could do it in a group format.
  • It’s best if you’re familiar with the general principles of user research. If you aren’t, start with this Catalyst article.

It covers:

  1. Why user research training often teaches people to avoid running focus groups. 
  2. Key principles for successful sessions and activities to use.
  3. Reasons you might choose to run group sessions.

Is running a group session really a problem for user research?

A frequently told story about focus group failure

Lots of training in user research starts out by saying “stop doing focus groups, try and do one-to-one interviews instead”

We say that in some of the training we deliver at Neontribe (we're a digital agency specialising in working with charities). We believe that one-to-one interviews and usability tests are easiest to deliver well when you are starting out in user research. To support this we tell the same story lots of other agencies use...

It describes a focus group where people were asked to say whether they’d like to buy a yellow Bakelite radio. Everyone in the group says they’d love one. Then, as they leave the session they get offered a radio to take away. They can choose a yellow or grey radio. Everyone chooses grey.

We use the story to show that in focus groups people often say they want or would like things but that how they behave in reality can be different. Focus groups don’t give a true picture of their needs. And user research is all about understanding needs.

We also talk about some of the other challenges of focus groups:

  • They were originally designed for people to give opinions on things, not to talk about what they do, or test things out.
  • It can be really difficult to balance who is taking part, and stop over-confident participants silencing quieter people’s voices.

But group sessions can be useful

The type of insights you get from traditional focus groups are not the ones we need for user research. They work for their original purpose - consultation and market research - not user research.

But it is possible to run a group session that is useful to user research projects. You can even call it a focus group and use similar recruitment methods. You just need to change activities to make sure they deliver user research style insights.  

How to run group sessions in a user research style

You can do sessions online or face-to-face. Either method needs lots of planning.

Here are some key principles to follow:

  • Plan a series of activities - avoid free discussion time.
  • Work with partners to recruit the participants carefully.
  • Don’t try to cram too much into a session.

Planning the right activities

We create activities rather than free discussions for two reasons:

  1. Managing a focus group discussion so everyone gets to take part equally is difficult. Most user researchers are not trained focus group facilitators (and vice-versa).
  2. Discussing and talking about things is not the best way to learn how people go about doing things. You can get some people to raise problems in a discussion - but there often isn’t time to go deeper. You miss root causes of problems and surfacing deepest level of needs.

Here are three activities to get you started:

1. Observed use of a website or watching people search and explore results

This is a type of usability test. One of the group uses the website and talks about what they are thinking and doing. They make choices about what to do. Everyone else comments silently, or out loud after a section of the test. 

If running this activity face-to-face: use a projector and screen, make the comments on post-it notes. 

If running it online: use screen share (with a facilitator 'driving') and ask for comments in the chat. Making space for comments (both written and out loud) rather than discussion keeps the emphasis on the kind of insights you want.

Here’s a Catalyst article on how to run usability tests on a website.

2. Group journey mapping

This is a classic user research activity. 

First we map out the steps of what people do in a certain situation. Then we go back and identify significant problems or pain points for each step. This works best for small groups of 3 or 4 people. 

It’s easiest if the facilitator makes the notes. Use post-it notes on a table or wall, online notes on any whiteboard type tool. More confident groups can make their own maps once they've learnt the process.

Read our 2 part guide to journey mapping:

  1. Using current journey mapping to uncover your users' experiences
  2. Using future journey mapping to create an ideal service experience for your users

3. Magic Box 

Talk about the scope of the project you are researching. Then ask people to complete this sentence on post-it notes: “I wish we could...”.

Then share the post-it notes to the group and ask them to identify what problems each wish might solve.

This exercise is great for dealing with all the solutions people have jumping around in their brains. It lets you work backwards from those, to the problems that need solving.

Recruiting the right participants

Before you recruit, think about how the make up of the group will affect everyone's participation experience. This is important to get right so everyone feels that their time has been valued.

There are no hard and fast rules, but here are some things to consider:

  • Run different sessions for people who know your organisation and people who don’t - they’ll have very different approaches.
  • Talk to people from key marginalised communities. Would they prefer sessions open to everyone, or sessions designed for them?
  • Create a way to check how often the people you are inviting take part in research sessions. Don't work only with 'the regulars'.

For online sessions:

  • Run different sessions for people using mobile devices and people using desktops. This makes giving instructions much easier. 
  • Group people according to technical skill levels, or whether they use an assistive technology. Match sessions to those needs.

Don’t pack too much in

One of the most common errors when running group sessions is trying to do too much. You need to leave enough time for people to engage fully with each activity. And you need time for them to switch from one activity to the next.

We recommend planning your session, then taking half the activities out. 

Keep only the ones you think will get the best insights for your project. Then prepare some of the ones you have taken out as well. You’ll have them ready as back up in case things go quicker than you expect.  

Good reasons to run group sessions instead of individual ones

Here are some of the reasons you might decide to run a group session.

1. It fits the needs of the research participants

How do you decide if your participants need a group session? Talk to your front-line staff. If they think that the people they support will be much more comfortable with group sessions, then consider ways to make that possible. 

People who may be less confident about meeting with or speaking to researchers sometimes prefer a group setting.

You can combine your group activities with an event that holds space for these people to share their stories with each other. Offer research activities that they can opt into and out of. 

2. Senior stakeholders only feel research is valid with higher numbers of participants

There is not always enough budget or enough time to do large numbers of user interviews. In those situations, you can persuade stakeholders how much you can learn from a small number of interviews (6 interviews is usually enough). But you can also carefully plan a group session and get good learning. 

3. Making the most of opportunities to join other people’s events

Sometimes finding participants for individual interviews can be hard. This could be because the organisation is new, and doesn't have anyone using its services yet. Or it might be aiming to work with a new group of people. Sometimes running a group session as part of someone else’s event can bring you and those people together.

This is particularly common if the people you support are other charity staff or carers.

Get more help with starting a digital project

This article describes how to run group sessions for user research. Later in the process you might want to run co-design sessions. Catalyst have a great introduction to co-design.

Learn more about starting a digital project by joining a Design Hop or read about what we mean by digital.

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