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Focus groups vs. usability testing - what, when and why?

by Tory Dunn on 1 July 2009

User research is a crucial component of any website or product development process. It will help you to identify the needs of your users and demonstrate how your website, intranet or application can be improved. Focus groups and usability testing are two very useful but very different user research disciplines. This article will look at the difference between focus groups and usability testing, the pros and cons of each and when in the development process you should use them.

What are focus groups and usability testing?

We've written articles about running focus groups and conducting usability testing, so we won't repeat everything here.

Focus groups gather approximately 6-8 representatives of your target market together with a moderator and have them discuss their feelings, attitudes and ideas on topics. They attempt to gather many people'sthoughts and attitudes on ideas and/or designs.

Usability testing involves using a 1-on-1 (1 person and 1 facilitator) interaction with a system or website. The facilitator runs through key tasks with the user and analyses how well they perform these tasks and how they find the whole experience. It focuses on the interaction between people and a website/system (finding how well people are able to do tasks and finding where and how designs can be improved).

Both focus groups and usability testing help you learn more about your target market, your users, giving you valuable insight into how you can improve the user experience of your website. But, because of their different focus and approach, they can give you very different information about your users.

Advantages and disadvantages

To help you get a greater understanding of when you should use either method you should learn the advantages and disadvantages of using each.

Focus groups:

  • Help you get in contact with lots of people fairly cheaply
  • Can help you get a clearer idea of your target market, what they think and what they want
  • Can only gather opinions on concepts and ideas, not how well people would use designs

The group interaction is a double edged sword. It means ideas can be bounced around and developed in the groups, leading to the creation of new ideas. It also means that they aren't always totally reliable - 1 vocal person in a group can influence what everyone else says.

Usability testing:

  • Is more expensive than focus groups, so you hear from less people
  • Gives you much more detail on each person and their thoughts/opinions
  • Is more reliable (there aren't other people influencing each person)
  • Focuses on the interaction with the website/system. So can show you exactly how people use websites/systems (and where and why they go wrong)

When should focus groups and usability testing be used?

So when should you use each research method? Well, it really depends on the amount of research you've already done.

Focus groups should be:

  • Performed early on in the project
  • Used if you have little or no real knowledge about your target market
  • Used if you are looking to develop something new, but aren't sure what the reaction will be

Usability testing should (ideally) be:

  • Used when creating a new site/system from scratch or making changes to an existing site/system
  • Performed regularly through the development cycle
  • Used to find out the performance of your site/system

Conclusion

Both focus groups and usability testing can give you a vast amount of information about your customers - who they are, what they feel and how they behave. However, to ensure you get the best possible insight from your investment, it's crucial to know what you want to find out and use the method best suited to give you the information you need.

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