Posts tagged “focus group”

Playing Participant: An autoethnography

With our Curating Consumption series Steve and I take time to look through our researcher lens at our lives as consumers. Sometimes we get to play participant and experience the other side of the research conversation. I recently participated in an online focus group for the redesign of a website. I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experience in contrast to that of being on the other side of the virtual glass. While the opportunities below were generated from a moderated online context, they also suggest possibilities for designing real time research interactions:

What Was Happening: I logged in and waited for the moderator to start talking. This was a silent discussion. Everyone was typing.

What I Was Thinking:¬†Here I am at my computer, wearing my ear buds, ready to listen and there’s no talking. Oh my God. I’m an extrovert. How can I make it through 90 minutes of silence? How can I get my big wordy thoughts into these little text boxes? This is not what I was expecting.

Insight: No one set appropriate expectations for what ‘online focus group’ meant. I assumed it would be like a focus group with actual verbal communication. As an extrovert I found it difficult to sit quietly for 90 minutes with a virtual room full of people. As a verbal processor I struggled to articulate some of my ideas as typed words with limited character restrictions. This may have felt considerably different had I known going into it what to expect.

Opportunity: Use words wisely. If you call something X but it is different from most Xs, then clearly communicate how it is different so participants have appropriate expectations. Or don’t call it X.

Opportunity: Employ a variety of methods that cater to diverse personalities (i.e. introvert, extrovert) and learning preferences (i.e. visual, auditory, kinesthetic).  Try to avoid using only one mode of interaction, it can feel alienating and disillusioning for participants.


What Was Happening: The moderators introduced themselves and set some guidelines for the session. Our first instruction was to introduce ourselves with a story about our name.

What I Was Thinking: Fun! Our icebreaker is simple! A story about my name: where it came from, what it means, whatever I want to share! Am I allowed to talk to the other participants? I want to comment on that story!

Insight: This was a fun and simple icebreaker with a low barrier to entry (everyone has a name!). It was also appropriate to the context because all I knew of the other participants in the group were their names. We began addressing comments to each other and then the moderator encouraged us to do more of that. We quickly established a rapport and connected to each other through these stories.

Opportunity: Facilitate rapport building between researcher and participants AND among participants. If you have expectations about who should (or shouldn’t) be talking to who, clarify that at the outset (or before beginning).


What Was Happening: We were asked questions by the moderator (her type was in bold and blue) and then all of our responses would come up in a feed below. It was a small window that I was unable to resize or navigate.

What I Was Thinking: This interface is driving me nuts. I am struggling to follow all of the comments. The moderator’s questions get lost upstream when everyone starts answering. When I try to go up to revisit the question, an answer comes in and I lose my place in the thread. I cant’ find the rating scale we are supposed to use. Is 1 high or low? ARGH!

Insight: The researcher often has a clear path through the conversation in mind. Participants don’t necessarily have this big picture view and can feel lost in the forest of questions and answers.

Opportunity: Ensure participants have various tools for keeping up with the flow of the conversation. This may be easier in live/in-person meetings, and especially valuable for virtual or asynchronous interactions.

Opportunity: Provide a map of the journey that enables participants to identify where they are if they feel lost. Let them peek behind the curtain to see what’s ahead. It can be a trust builder if done well, or a spoiler alert if not framed appropriately.

If you want to play with the possibilities of using these opportunities to improve your own practice (I know I am!), you can turn each Opportunity into a question that catalyzes divergent thinking. Simply ask “How might we…” before each Opportunity (e.g., How Might We ensure participants have various tools for keeping up with the flow of the conversation?). Then challenge yourself to generate as many ideas as you can (20 is always a good round number). And if you do, please share! We would love to hear suggestions for how to improve the practice of research by improving the design of the participant experience.

ChittahChattah Quickies

Meet Google’s search anthropologist [SF Chron] – While the article still has a bit of the wow-technology-companies-use-social-science-to-watch-people-use-stuff wide-eyedness we see in every popular press piece, I was intrigued by the nice exploration of the gulf between what some people reveal they need and what design changes make it into the product. It’s not a one-to-one match and the article speaks to that reasonably well.

Google has hundreds of millions of users, each with different needs, working styles and levels of search competence. Every change for one subset – like those who occasionally use advanced search – comes at a cost for others – like the vast majority of people who never use it and don’t want it cluttering up the main page. Striking the right balance for the greater good requires listening to the data – and, of course, to the users themselves. “That particular interview didn’t finish off the painting,” Russell said. “But every interview helps fill in a little bit more of the canvas.”

Why Storytellers Lie [The Atlantic] – “Lie” is a perfect headline-grabbing word and it probably pays to read the piece with a less judgmental take on what people tell us. There are many situations that are lies but in research it’s our job to seek a number of possible truths and understand why what we hear may not always be the same as what we identify as true.

Sinister as that may sound, therapy likely helps many of us feel better at least in part because it encourages us to become less truthful autobiographers. As studies have shown, depressives tend to have more realistic-and less inflated-perceptions of their importance, abilities, and power in the world than others. So those of us who benefit from therapy may like it in large part because it helps us to do what others can do more naturally: to see ourselves as heroes; to write (and re-write) the stories of our lives in ways that cast us in the best possible light; to believe that we have grown from helpless orphans or outcasts to warriors in control of our fate…We should remember how much we all have a tendency to fictionalize, whether we realize it or not. We like stories because, as Gotschall puts it, we are “addicted to meaning”-and meaning is not always the same as the truth.

Clickers Offer Instant Interactions in More Venues [NYT] – This continues to be an almost-trend; the desire/opportunity/ability to “like” stuff IRL (“in real life”) the way we do on Facebook (see a previous example here).

The delighted shouts from middle-schoolers and seniors alike suggest that neither group is accustomed to having its opinions solicited. But with a clicker, “suddenly their voices are important,” said Professor James Katz, the director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers. “If people feel their opinions really count, they’ll be happy and likely to give more opinions.” The dynamic of social comparison – understanding where you stand relative to your tribe – is also a draw. Clicker software satisfies that curiosity by immediately displaying a bar graph of responses in the room. “This is a new form of transparency for crowd psychology,” he said. He added some cautions about using clickers, also called audience response systems. In a society in which checking the crowd’s opinion becomes the norm, Professor Katz said, taking risks or relying on one’s instincts may be devalued. “Those who want to strike out in new directions and challenge the sentiments of a crowd, like artists and writers, have an additional burden with this technology because they can know that no one takes comfort in their vision,” he said. “There goes the Great American Novel.”

The Wizard of Oz Focus Group – Footage from an early focus group for The Wizard of Oz. ‘Nuff said.

Embedding disabled. Drat! Just click on the link above, then.

What Makes People Share Information? [Mozilla UX] – The Mozilla UX team is doing a nice job at sharing their inquiries, their methods, their artifacts and their thinking behind all of ’em.

We’re starting another research study this week. We’re interviewing 8 users in their homes, for 90 minutes each, to understand how people define their online life. It’s purposely broad as we’re trying to learn more about how people discover and organize websites from both online and offline sources. It wouldn’t be a successful interview without some artifacts to help us collect this data, so we came up with a two fun activities – the timeline and “me in the middle”. At the beginning we’ll start with a simple timeline and have the participants walk us through their yesterday – what they did, where they where and we’ll prompt for what tools and devices they used – but that is just a way to get all the raw data on paper quickly. What we are really after is their stories.

Netflix never even thought to ask about *that*!

Reed Hastings Knows He Messed Up is a Q&A with the Netflix CEO. The piece is largely snarky pseudo-hardball questions that Hastings dodges by asking us to take the long view, but this nugget about the Qwikster debacle was provocative:

Q: I’m curious if you could have done any kind of research that could have anticipated this?
A: Our focus-group work concentrated on trying to understand consumers’ perspectives on names other than Netflix.

I’m stunned by this and all it implies.

  • Netflix doesn’t think of using research to understand the impact of a concept that would change its user experience?
  • Netflix relies on focus groups as their strategic insight methodology?
  • Netflix didn’t already have knowledge of user work flows, brand affinity, or anything else from their previous work that could have guided them?
  • Netflix tested the Qwikster name and still went with it?

This is baffling, so baffling that it must not be true. There’s plenty of thought-leader UX types in house at Netflix, this is not a company that doesn’t think about design, experience, or the customer. Now where Hastings sits in that process is another question. Not to mention this quote is condensed from a longer interview and there may be some crucial content lost. But still. Stunned.

ChittahChattah Quickies

Dissident Creates by Remote Control [NYT.com] – Of course this is a political act as much as an artistic or commercial one (and some art theorist can probably explain why it must always be all three, yes?) but this seemed a novel application of remote collaboration software, at least in the way they’ve framed it.

In an unusual collaboration with W magazine, Ai Weiwi created a story line for a series of photos that were shot on location in New York by the photographer Max Vadukul as Mr. Ai looked on, art directing via Skype on a laptop computer. Mr. Vadukul would set up a shot and look to Mr. Ai for approval. “We could see him on the screen, scrolling through the images,” Ms. Solway said. “What was so interesting was his attention to every detail. There was this big shower in Rikers – we thought it looked very dingy, but he said the grout was way too clean and graphic.”

Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence [NYT.com] – While the whole article primarily deals with the decisions that financial professionals make (scary scary stuff), the principles on judgement and decision-decision making feel sound, if challenging.

You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone; chess players find a strong move in a single glance at a complex position; and true legends of instant diagnoses are common among physicians. To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes. Anesthesiologists have a better chance to develop intuitions than radiologists do.

Personal Eco-Concierges Ease Transition to Green [NYT.com] – Last year we did a research project that looked at “going green” as a journey. We met people at various stages along that transition and what their decisions were like at each of those stages. No surprise to see businesses appear explicitly aimed at facilitating the steps along that journey; indeed we identified other products and services that were or could speak to that goal – beyond usage to growth.

“The problem with going green is that people think it takes so much work, so much effort, so much conscious decision-making,” said Letitia Burrell, president of Eco-Concierge NYC, a year-old business in Manhattan that tries to make it easy for people to rid their homes of toxins, hire sustainable-cuisine chefs and find organic dry cleaners. It is a niche business, but a clever one. At least a half-dozen services of this type have sprung up around the country in recent years, both to help time-starved consumers manage their lives and to assuage the guilt of those who worry that they are letting the planet down. “There are people who come to us gung-ho and they want to make a sweeping lifestyle change,” said P. Richelle White, who left a corporate advertising job four years ago to start Herb’n Maid, a green cleaning and concierge service in St. Louis. “These are busy professionals who don’t have the time to do the research themselves about different products and services.”

Sexy, religious images spotted on new money [CBC News] – Getting feedback to designs before going to press is proven once again to be a good idea. Seems like a great application of a focus group, since the feedback needed is shallow and not very nuanced, although interesting to note that the social dynamics of a focus group limit the naturalness of that feedback – so much so that it made it into the report!

The Bank of Canada fretted that Canadians would find all kinds of unintended images on the new bills. So the bank used focus groups to spot “potential controversies.” “The overall purpose of the research was to disaster check the $50 and $100 notes among the general public and cash handlers,” says a January report to the central bank. Almost every group thought the see-through window looked like a woman’s body, but participants were often shy about pointing it out “However, once noted, it often led to acknowledgment and laughter among many of the participants in a group.” On the other side of the bill, there’s an image of a researcher at a microscope and a depiction of the double-helix structure of DNA. But the DNA strand evoked something else. A Vancouver focus group thought it was “a sex toy (i.e., sex beads).” Others thought it was the Big Dipper. There was no mistaking the microscope, but when focus groups flipped over the bill they noticed the edge of the instrument showed through like a weird birthmark on Borden’s cheek. Respondents also thought the former prime minister was either cross-eyed or that each eye was looking off in a different direction, the report says “Others felt that the PM’s moustache is unkempt.” Every focus group thought they saw religious iconography on the face of the Peace Tower clock. “It was often described as ‘The Star of David.’ Others referred to it as a ‘pagan’ or ‘religious’ symbol,'” the document says-Bank of Canada spokeswoman Julie Girard said the bills got tweaked after the focus groups. “Before and after those focus groups, there were design changes for multiple reasons,” she said.

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