Conducting Focus Groups to Find UX Design Insights

Written by David Minty, UX Team Lead at Provoke 

Harlem, New York.
On my arrival to my AirBnB accommodation, I’m greeted by some neighbourhood kids who were hanging out on a stoop across the street. It was kind of like walking into the set of Sesame Street. The kids were friendly and inquisitive about who I was and where I came from. It was almost as if they discovered a rare Pokémon and they wanted to collect it/me. One of them said I had a funny accent, another welcomed me to New York and another recommended an “ill pizza joint” around the corner. Friendly neighbours — tick. Ill pizza for dinner — tick.

To give my visit to New York some context, our client Microsoft launched an online developer programme in 2014. Their objective was to grow a community of developers building applications and add-ins for the platform. Having been successful to many degrees, there was a growing conversation with Provoke about conducting focus groups with developers to validate the program’s core values and to gather other types of feedback. I have to take my hat off to Microsoft for taking on a focus group approach. Not every client is prepared to turn the table on themselves and ask complete strangers if they think their baby is ugly or not.

Preparation begins. Before embarking on the trip, we decided to write questionnaires for the groups, as they are a fast and practical way to capture certain types of information and sentiment. As with every customer, there are business goals that need to be achieved. We kept this in mind when writing the questions for the focus groups, and worked closely with Suzanna from Microsoft to ensure the questions pointed back to the program's business goals. Between Suzanna’s experience and knowledge of the developer program and our development and UX skillsets, we were able to refine the questions from all perspectives. To gather a range of feedback from Microsoft’s target audiences, we choose to conduct the focus groups in New York and San Francisco. 

Conducting the Groups. In New York, we began to conduct the first two of four groups. The groups themselves were two hours each. They went well, which was great. However, it wasn't without having to wrangle a few personalities along the way. When you get a bunch of strangers together in a room who have a skill-set in common, it's only a matter of time before they warm to each other and comedy starts to fly! As much as I enjoyed the vibe and humour (of which I contributed to of course) I had to play the role of Mother Superior and keep them on track.


I really enjoyed the New Yorker participants. Straight shooters, which is perfect for collecting information.

In San Francisco, after landing, we went straight to a cafe for much needed coffee. The place we found looked cool, had free Wi-Fi and avocado on toast, yum. The man behind the till looked like he'd just come from some kind of hipster grooming pit  he was well dressed and his beard had a wavy pattern.

After staring at his beard for a while, he must've found me creepy and suggested I have today's special, which was called a windy picnic (espresso). And wow, each sip transcended me onto a grassy knoll where I was frolicking with friendly forest animals. I think at this point I realised I needed some sleep. My first impression of San Francisco — rad.


The San Fran groups ran well, they also featured some real characters like the New York groups did. As the last one drew to a close, I asked if they were going to vote for Trump or Hillary.. Totally worth it, although it was/wasn’t received well.


Reflecting on the Findings. Having the opportunity to facilitate focus groups with Microsoft’s target audience was a real buzz for me. Having completed the groups now, I can say the mindsets were polarising. The New Yorker groups were insightful and informative, but that usually came with a dose of scepticism or caution. The San Francisco groups tended to be open minded and very granular when it came to articulating answers.

Invoking the opinions of the New Yorkers and San Fran peeps was pleasant, energising, surprising and at times I felt like I was poking a beehive with a stick. The discussions generated in those rooms were incredibly insightful and reiterated the value of talking to end users.

We now know which babies are ugly and which ones aren’t.


In the end, we gathered a mine of information, analysed it, and documented a report identifying themes in the feedback. These themes became our key findings, which we were then able to make recommendations on next steps for the project.


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