Ask Women in Product: What are the dos and don’ts of running a Focus Group?

Stephanie Muxfeld and Ashley Wali share their tips and favorite resources for running effective focus groups.

Photo by WOCinTech Chat under CC BY 2.0

This week’s question: What are the do’s and don’ts of running a Focus Group? I am organizing a group now to gather inputs for our product roadmap and feature development. Would love to get your tips and favorite resources.


Answer from Stephanie Muxfeld, Delivery Leadership Consultant

Focus groups can be immensely valuable for gathering feedback and ideas directly from your users and stakeholders. The thoughts in this article apply to either of these scenarios — user feedback groups or discovery-type sessions with your key stakeholders or even your own team.

Conducting a productive, valuable focus group session takes preparation. If you get a group of people in a room without a plan, you are bound to have a miserable couple of hours! Focus groups should be fun, both for the participants and for you! The best sessions I’ve participated in have had a variety of activities to keep the group active and engaged. And sometimes the best ideas and opportunities are discovered through these activities!

Things to consider before the session

Have a good cross-section of participants. Sometimes, as with internal stakeholders, you will not have a choice in your attendees. However, if you do have a choice, a group with a variety of product knowledge, technical skill, and backgrounds can help give you more well-rounded results. If you know your participants, balancing communication styles (introverts vs. extroverts) can also be beneficial.

Set the room up for comfort and efficiency. I like to use a room with lots of whiteboards. If I can’t find one like that, I’ll use the large sticky note flip chart pages instead. I always make sure to have more sticky notes that I think I’ll need, along with at least two sharpies per person. Also, plan for materials necessary for any other activities you’re going to have the group work on.

If you’ll be demonstrating your product, you’ll want to check the audiovisual equipment in advance to make sure you know how to hook your laptop up. If you are projecting, you’ll want to ensure that all chairs have a clear view of the screen. No one wants to be the participant sitting directly in front of the screen, with their back to it!

Depending on the length of the session, you may choose to provide refreshments. For a shorter session, coffee and other drinks are inexpensive, and the participants appreciate the effort. For longer sessions, ordering in lunch is always appreciated. By providing refreshments, you also get to keep your participants in the room, instead of having them leave for lunch or breaks. It can take valuable time to get back on track after a break if participants leave and focus on something completely different for half an hour!

Thank your participants. Your company likely has rules on what’s allowable in terms of rewards. Some companies issue payment to participants, while some others use small gift cards or company logo items as a small token of appreciation. Talk with your team to find out what your company normally does.

Things to do during the session

Know your goal and stick to it. Determine, ahead of time, what your goals are for the session. Is it greenfield ideation? Is it getting feedback on an existing product? Or is it defining opportunities or problem statements? Whatever it is, you’ll have an easier time keeping your group on track and will get more valuable information from your participants if you stay focused on your goal.

Use an impartial facilitator if one is available. The facilitator could be another product manager or anyone with an understanding of the discovery and feedback process. When you have someone else keeping track of the time, taking down notes, and leading the activities, you can be free to learn as much as you can during the session. Note: If you rely on a colleague to facilitate, you should also be willing to reciprocate when they need a facilitator.

Use tactile activities to keep your participants engaged. There are many types of activities available to focus group facilitators, and I’ll list a few of my favorites here:

  • Crazy Eights sketching exercise: Great for getting people loosened up and creative; gives you great perspectives on your product as well as potential design ideas.
  • Sticky-note brainstorming: This technique can be used for problem identification, pain point identification, and solution idea generation.
  • Dot voting: I picked this one up in my community-organizing work, but it works equally well in software development. Use this technique to hone in on your brainstorming ideas and get clarity on which ones to explore further!

As the activities are in progress, it’s important to encourage participation from all attendees. Some will be more comfortable participating, while others may need extra encouragement.

Keep the session light and engaging. The attendees are volunteering to be there to help you and your product, so make it fun!

Common Pitfalls

Taking product feedback personally. This trap can very quickly derail a session. The focus group needs to be a safe space for people to freely share their opinions and ideas. We all know you love your product — but you are here to find out what other people think and what their ideas are. Please see their feedback as the gift it is and use it to make your product even more awesome.

Debating technical feasibility or level of effort. Your attendees are unlikely to have the skillset to discuss that, so please don’t respond to ideas with comments like “We can’t do that” or “That’s way too hard!” You will have plenty of time to sort out the feasibility and level of effort later, with your engineers. Don’t put that burden on your stakeholders and don’t stifle their ideas by making them guess at how hard it might be to implement their idea.

Becoming frustrated. Focus groups are full of people. People are unpredictable and often don’t do exactly what you want them to. The one thing you can count on with a focus group is that it will not go as planned! Use this as an exercise in patience and flexibility. Even groups that don’t go as planned can give you valuable insights into your product. Take what feedback you can get, be thankful for it, and move on.

Wrap it up cleanly

Review what the group accomplished in today’s session. Let the group know what you plan on doing with the information you’ve gathered. Thank them for their time and input.

Take photos of your completed activities. This form of documentation will prove useful as you look back on the results. If you take photos, you usually won’t have to save all the sticky notes and sketches.

Take the results back to your team and determine how you’ll handle them — incorporate them into your backlog, file them away in your icebox, or use them to conduct further sessions with your own team to refine them further.

Use these resources to learn more


Answer from Ashley Wali, Director of Product, Discuss.io

A focus group lets you quickly validate ideas and utilize the creativity of a group, but it’s more difficult than a 1:1 interview for a number of reasons. Organizing schedules, finding the right respondents, and managing the conversation all become important factors to success. If you’ve decided that a focus group provides the right structure for your needs, follow these simple tips for getting the most out of your time.

Don’t Limit Yourself

As you plan the focus group, think about your ideal respondents and find a tool or location that works for everyone. Do you need to find out what challenges car fleet owners in India have and validate how your app could help them minimize downtime? Then don’t settle for talking to car owners in the Bay Area just because they can come to your office during work hours.

Live online focus groups, even in emerging markets, are possible with a number of platforms, including lightweight ones like Skype or Zoom, and more tailored solutions like discuss.io and FocusVision. (Disclosure: I’m an employee of discuss.io.)

Don’t limit yourself by the time of day either. One of the easiest recruitment pitfalls to avoid is planning a session at a time that is inconvenient for your participants. Do you need feedback from working moms? Then a session at 10:00 AM on a weekday is not going to work, even if it’s the most convenient time for you. Be flexible with your timing and schedule your group for the time when your target profile is available.

Recruit Carefully

The dynamics of a focus group are very different from a 1:1 conversation, and if you’re not careful, you may create a dynamic that keeps people from feeling safe enough to speak openly. Include questions in your screening survey that show you who will be talkative and willing to share among a group of strangers, and who would be better to connect with in a 1:1 setting.

Key behavioral questions to include in your screener:

  • How open-minded do you consider yourself to be?
  • Do you prefer to spend your free time alone or with others?
  • On a scale of 1–5, how much do you agree or disagree with these statements?
    a. I enjoy meeting and talking to new people
    b. When I meet people for the first time, I’m shy and do not talk much
    c. I think I am creative

Finally, always set expectations about the nature of the session that a participant will be walking (or logging) into. One cautionary tale has stuck with me about a participant with great insight to share, but who was blindsided by being part of a focus group and was eventually asked to leave the session early.

Create a Comfortable Environment

To get good answers from a focus group, you need to put your participants in an environment where they feel comfortable answering truthfully. If you’re doing an in-person focus group, show the participants around. Let them know where the bathrooms are. Calibrate the room temperature and the lighting. Have coffee or water available, especially if your sessions run over an hour.

If you’ll be recording the session, let everyone know ahead of time. If you are in a facility with a back room, let participants know that there may be observers watching the session.

If you’re eliciting feedback on your competitive positioning or asking things about your brand, consider holding the focus group in a neutral space. Being in your office may bias participants who don’t want to say negative things while surrounded by the hardworking people who make the product they’re evaluating!

You will also want to consider cultural factors. In some countries, it would be inappropriate for women to participate with men in a mixed group, or with a male moderator. Even if your participants don’t face those concerns, your subject matter may be such that single-gender groups will elicit more honest responses to the same questions. A few minutes of consideration about the design of your focus group can vastly improve the responses you get.

Keep the Session Moving

Write a discussion guide ahead of time to keep you on track during the session. It doesn’t need to be a question-by-question script but rather a guidepost to keep you on track and make sure you don’t miss anything important.

Writing things out ahead of time also allows you to reorder your activities to manage the energy and mood of the room. Start with an icebreaker or introductory activity to build some shared experience amongst the group. Use this as a chance to evaluate who is likely to dominate the discussion and strategize about how you will make space for every participant to share their thoughts.

Include a mix of activities, such as:

  • open-ended questions
  • prioritization activities
  • voting (I like using fake money and having participants spend their money on the features they most want us to build)
  • mapping out current processes and pain points

Another good activity is a challenges/opportunities activity where you could pose a question like “What are the enablers and blockers to increasing adoption of this tool within your company?” We did this exercise for our B2B app and split the group into two, one to focus on blockers and another to focus on enablers.

Moderate like a Pro

Get a pro, or at least an unbiased, moderator if you can. You’ll want someone who has experience managing the dynamics of a group discussion who can keep participation balanced, adjust activities as needed, and ask questions in a way that doesn’t orient the answers toward your hypothesis.

If you do need to act as the moderator, study up on how to avoid leading questions. Instead of, “Would you find this feature valuable?” ask, “How valuable would you find this feature?” It’s a subtle difference, but it keeps the user from feeling pressured to say, “Yes, I would find it valuable.

Lastly, get comfortable with moments of uncomfortable silence. If you’re asking good questions, participants may need a moment to think about their response. The best moderators ask a question then maintain a neutral/positive face while silently waiting for a response. They don’t rephrase the question, and they definitely don’t suggest an answer (I have caught myself doing both of these things!) If you feel the urge to speak, count to five in your head to distract yourself. Your participants are likely to start speaking before you finish the count.

For more tips on leveling up your moderating skills, you can read up on different moderator roles and learn more about asking unbiased questions.

Turn Insights into Action

I recently ran a focus group with senior-level market researchers. One of the things that stood out for me in that group was this quote: “We don’t have a lack of insights. We have a lack of action!

After your session ends, debrief with other employees in attendance. If possible, give everyone a sheet of paper and ask no more than three questions to capture their main takeaways from the day. Your questions could include:

  • What was the most surprising thing you heard today?
  • If you were to quit your job and start a company based on what you heard today, what company would you start?
  • If you walk out of here and run into our CEO, what is the one thing you will tell them about this session?
  • If you could only make one change to our product after listening to today’s session, what would it be?
  • How did what you heard today differ from what you expected to hear?

Share out a summary of suggested actions. Use real quotes or videos as supporting evidence whenever possible to drive home the learning for those who weren’t in attendance.

Focus groups are a fantastic way to quickly understand multiple opinions from a targeted group of users. With careful preparation, cultural understanding, and moderator discipline, you can craft a day that provides you with valuable direction and is rewarding to a select group of customers.