6 Common Focus Group Mistakes to Avoid When Conducting UX Research

From misaligned recruitment to research bias, here are a few common errors to be aware of when conducting your own focus group research.

Rebecca Bridge
Rebecca Bridge
Jun 13, 2023
Min Read

Focus groups continue to be one of the most accepted methods for garnering actionable qualitative data about consumer insights, opinions, and behaviors. 

Yet, for all their usefulness, there are also many mistakes that can render the insights garnered from a focus group study unreliable.  These errors could affect focus group research along every step: the planning, the implementation, and in the interpretation of results. 

Whether it’s failing to narrow your participant pool down enough by choosing the right qualitative research participants or allowing bias to seep into your results, let’s look at some of the most common blunders researchers make and how you can anticipate and avoid these problems in your own focus group research. 

What Is A Focus Group?

A focus group is a qualitative research method that involves a small group of participants who are representative of the target users or customers of a product or service. The primary purpose of a focus group is to gather insights, opinions, and feedback about a particular product, feature, or user experience.

The insights gathered from a focus group can provide valuable information to UX designers, product managers, and researchers. The discussions can uncover user needs, preferences, pain points, and ideas for improvement. By analyzing the collective opinions and experiences of the participants, researchers can identify patterns, trends, and potential design directions.

Focus Group Definition

Throughout the course of the focus group, UX researchers are able to observe how real world users interact with their products and collect feedback and opinions that can answer the how’s, what’s, and why’s.


In-Person vs. Remote Focus Groups

Focus groups have historically been in-person, generally in a neutral conference room or office–not affiliated with the company seeking the insights. These days, however, online video conferencing can also be utilized, especially when observing physical interactions with a product isn’t necessary. 

When Should You Use Focus Groups in UX Research? 

Focus groups can be particularly useful for providing insights into how users interact with a product and what might make their experience easier/simpler/more streamlined/etc. 

Because focus groups often offer insights into directions your product may need to expand into or ways it might change, it’s important to hold focus group research after you have at least a prototype of your product, but before you are too locked-in to make changes. The more flexibility your organization has to incorporate the data and findings of your focus group(s), the more useful they will be for guiding your work forward. 

Common Focus Group Mistakes—And How to Fix Them

Mistake 1: Choosing the wrong moderator

Often, moderators are chosen based on who’s running the project—or who has the best people skills (aka is an extrovert). 

However, focus groups require moderators with a specific skill set. 

The moderator of a focus group isn’t a person leading a simple discussion. Rather, an effective focus group moderator needs to be able to wear many hats if she’s going to gain useful insights from a focus group. 

When choosing a moderator, look for the following skills:

  • Awareness of Bias: The moderator needs to be able to direct the course of the conversation without controlling or prejudicing participant responses.
  • Observation: She needs to be a keen observer of behavior who can help balance the group dynamic and negotiate a group full of different personality types—say, extroverts who might dominate the conversation and introverts who might shy away from speaking.
  • Knowledge of UX needs: She needs to know when to let conversation flow and when to step in to give the focus group a nudge in the right direction. She needs to be able to discern when a group is offering keen insight rather than steering itself toward argumentative dead-ends or giving misleading information.

It's a lot to be able to balance at once and choosing an effective and experienced moderator to lead focus group interviews can make or break the usability of the data that’s collected. 

Whenever possible, opt for a moderator who has a thorough understanding of the research objective and also has know-how of group dynamics, has successfully led previous focus groups, and who will be a good personality match for the participants they’ll be interacting with. Which leads us to our next common focus group pain point.

Mistake 2: Failure to screen for the correct focus-group participants

Without participants, there is no focus group. 

But getting bodies in the conference chairs (or in the Zoom meeting, these days) isn’t the only thing to worry about when preparing a focus group study. It’s important to select qualified qualitative research participants, aka the right bodies, while also choosing the right number of participants. Let’s look at some of the pain points that come up frequently in focus-group participant selection. 

First off, it’s important to clearly establish screening criteria to weed out participants whose insight won’t be helpful to your goals. 

Spend some time asking what that looks like for your goals, whether they are demographics, product and service insights or consumer beliefs. Who has the answers to the questions you’re asking? 

Develop a clear participant profile and then you can build a set of screener questions that will help you zero in on the right high-quality participants for your focus group. You want to screen out potential participants who, for example:

  • Might not have strong feelings on your topic/brand/issue/product
  • Conversely, have an irrationally single-minded  preexisting opinion on your topic/brand/issue/product
  • Aren’t familiar enough with your topic/brand/issue/product to offer much to the focus group discussion
  • Offer too homogenous a viewpoint on the subject, as the median participant

Finding a unicorn participant can often feel impossible, so focus your criteria on realistic goals that leave room for a nice balance between criteria that are obligatory and those that are more optional.

Don’t let perfection keep you from even getting a focus group off the ground in the first place. Factor in enough time to adequately recruit participants and keep in mind that it often takes longer than you might expect, especially when your Ask is very specialized or focused—i.e., “a user who has interacted with our product in the last month” or “a consumer with knowledge of consumer law”. 

Mistake 3: Accepting too many participants

While finding the perfect participant can be a problem, its antithesis is finding too many participants. Too large of a group can make it impossible for a moderator to adequately facilitate discussions, can disrupt the group dynamic, and can impede the moderator from satisfactorily obtaining the information that she’s looking for. 

Instead of giving in to the instinct of casting a wide net to capture as many participants as possible, keep your focus group limited in size. A group of between 4-8 is ideal for a group dynamic in which all participants can have a voice, the moderator can effectively keep them focused, and all insight can be recorded. 

Mistake 4: Not planning for participant drop-off

Inevitably, you are going to have at least a few participants in your focus group who drop off the radar somewhere before the finish of your research. If you prepare for this reality going into your research, you’ll save time and frustration when it happens, and you’ll have your end results faster. 

How do you prepare for this? Set an over-recruit limit that will give you extra participants who are already ready to step in if another participant drops out. A good rule of thumb to follow is one extra participant for a very small focus group (2-4 participants) and two extra recruits for larger focus groups (5-10 participants). 

You can also work to ensure that your participants show up for your focus group by:

  • Setting competitive incentives to keep them interested in participating
  • Keeping communication open and direct so that participants know what to expect
  • Respect your participants time: keep your asks realistic, let them know how much time they’ll be investing, always be prepared to start and finish focus groups on time
  • Let your participants know their value and importance. When they feel good, they’ll want to come back

Mistake 5: Research objectives aren’t clearly articulated

This might seem counter-intuitive, after all, how can one possibly run research without knowing what’s being researched? Well, it happens all the time, albeit often in a more subtle way that goes unnoticed. Oftentimes, clients who are working with quick turnarounds and tight deadlines know that they need to get answers and that the answers can be found through focus group research, but the thinking doesn’t go much deeper than that. 

In the rush to get information, the client and/or researcher fails to do a deep dive to identify what objectives they have for the research. Spending some time developing your research goals can get you the rich, actionable results that will be worth the time and money. 

Be sure that your objectives are actionable. For example, instead of asking your focus group whether they like an aspect of your product, focus on what they would change or what might be missing. Instead of “Did you like our “You Might Also Like” recommendations, you could ask your respondents something more open-ended such as “What was your next step after you chose a product from our site and why?” Consider how you’ll be using the research you collect and then allow your set of objectives to reflect questions and considerations that will get you to that goal. 

Mistake 6: Allowing bias into results

A big mistake inexperienced researchers may make when conducting focus group research is expecting quantifiable results from research that is qualitative. Focus groups aren’t the place to focus on granular results such as what one participant said, rather, its’ for gathering a bigger picture idea about how an idea/product/etc. is perceived and the general feelings it garners in potential customers. 

Focus group research is also not the place to confirm pre-conceived notions of what the public (or the researcher themselves) believes/thinks/wants. Instead, it’s a conduit for gathering spontaneous interactions, feelings, and points-of-view from real world users or consumers. 

How do you know if you’re introducing bias into your results? One way is by investigating the questions you’re asking/responses you’re hoping to garner and making sure that they are open-ended rather than closed and leading questions that seek to answer the assumptions you might already have about your product. 

It’s normal that as humans, we’re going to have a lot of preconceived notions of what others want/think/feel/etc., but it’s important to not allow those ideas to bias the way we interpret focus group results. 

Key Takeaways

With a bit of preparation and foresight, focus group research can be a powerful tool for gaining insight into what your customer base thinks and how it feels about new products, services or features you’re looking to bring to market.

Rebecca Bridge author bio

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Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.