• #FocusGroups
  • #Methodology

Cookie Monster Focus Groups

ux focus groups

Clients will often ask me when why we couldn’t simply use feedback conducted with a focus group to make design changes. As UX Designers, we find that focus groups generally don’t yield as many reliable usability insights for our designs. This is in part due to groupthink – when other participants latch on to the opinion of a more outspoken participant rather than providing original customer feedback.

Too many of the same ideas do not make for productive focus groups.
Too many of the same ideas do not make for productive focus groups.

It may sound Orwellian, but groupthink is more pervasive than we think and it is abound in focus groups. It’s the antithesis of designing great user-friendly software that works for people.

You know when your “healthy” friend says he doesn’t like sugar but secretly downs cookies in his closet? Similarly, in focus groups  participants are not the best judges of their own characters. In other words, self-reporting will give you somewhat distorted perspectives from the participants. The distortion might stem from a false sense of self-perception, forgetting how they truly thought or behaved in the past, or to appease their baker boss (in the case of Cookie Monster) who might also be present in the focus group.


Enter usability testing: solver of Orwellian groupthink and purported claims by sugar-hating cookie-lovers….

Usability testing is a critical step in the development of a new digital product, and focus groups are not a replacement. The science of usability testing allows our clients to separate truth from what could be fiction by focussing more on user actions than what they say in a group setting.

Whether it is guerrilla testing, remote software testing, interviewing individual users (outside of a focus group setting) or some other method, you can get more solid and unbiased user research data that can actually drive your application design and improve customer experience.

Want to catch your cookie monster friend in the act? Don’t ask if he likes sugar, instead, ask what he was eating last night at midnight! Or better yet, set up a camera by the cookie jar and ask to test his blood sugar the next morning!

Catch your cookie monster in the act with usability testing.
Catch your cookie monster in the act with usability testing.

But can focus groups still have their place in the product development lifecycle? And how do we go about effectively leveraging both methods?

Recommended High Level UX Methodology:
  • Begin early with focus groups for the discovery phase and ideation. In this context, focus groups can give a wealth of qualitative information — what users are thinking or feeling about situations and what might change their thoughts and feelings once you start ideating on new products to bring to those users.
  • Let UX design specialists vet focus group ideas in prototypes via usability testing. Usability testing gives you reliable insights of how your users are actually performing, and hence, how your new ideas and features are faring in the marketplace.
  • Continually ensure that your designs are aligned with users and business requirements through usability testing until launch and after.  After launch, also keep a close eye on your web analytics (both intranet and public facing).
Final Thoughts

Don’t ask the Cookie Monster what he is and why he does it — catch him in the act. Same with your users. While focus groups have their place for ideation, this can’t replace usability testing for understanding how your users will likely respond when physically interacting with your digital experience.

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Abdul SuleimanAbdul SuleimanChief Experience Officer

Abdul is our founder and CEO. He’s helped over 40 Fortune 500 companies make informed user-centered design decisions through evidence-based user research and UX best practices. As an Adjunct Professor, Abdul has taught in DePaul University’s graduate UX programs and for nine other universities.

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