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« Are Your Online Forms Usable? | Main | Why Test A Company Web Site Outside The Office? »

Web Usability - ALERT! Dominant Users and Focus Groups

There I was … sitting in a room full of decision makers for a web site review meeting.  The review meeting was the culmination of months of work. On one side of the table was our development team and on the other side of the table the client’s team.  The review was conducted one page at a time in order to be meticulous and not miss anything.  After a few minutes of reviewing the site there was a distinct change in atmosphere.  The senior representative of the client’s team started making a series of comments and suggestions regarding the web site.  His subordinates acknowledged almost every single remark he made with a nod of agreement or vocalized their support.  He could have said anything and the client’s team would have accepted the suggestion without question or comment.  I sat there in disbelief as one bad suggestion followed another.  Most of the client’s suggestions were the complete opposite of good web design.  The suggestions that were implemented diluted the quality of the web site.  It was my first experience with a dominate user focus group.

Using Focus Groups
There are a number of people in the Internet development industry who make use of focus groups.  One specific use of focus groups is for web usability testing.  The above scenario is a perfect example of a dominate user focus group. It involves user testing of a web site, not idea generation.  In the scenario one person’s opinion influences or overshadows everyone else in the group.  Dominate users can have a negative impact on collecting good data and thus diminish the impact of the testing group.

One on One Testing
Focus groups for usability testing can be highly effective if you abide by one simple suggestion, break up the group.  When testing a web site make use of individual testing sessions. Sit down with your test user and go through a web site one on one. It is more time consuming, but the data you collect is significantly better. Users are much more likely to voice their opinion in an individual scenario as opposed to a group. 

How many times have you been reluctant to ask a “silly” question in a group or make a suggestion?  That reluctance changes when you get people one on one. It takes a little additional time to get test users to open up.  For all the usability tests I’ve conducted, I have yet to come across someone who has been reluctant to open up.  When users do open up you usually can’t take notes fast enough.  The feedback collected will be significantly better.

If you are considering doing a small usability test on your web site stay away from focus groups in the traditional sense. Use individual sessions to collect your data.  It is more time consuming, but the quality of data collected increases significantly.

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Comments

Eugene Loj

Thanks for your comment. I agree that focus groups are great for brainstorming, but not necessarily web usability testing. The post focuses on the danger of dominate users in a focus group. I believe it is easier to get to the truth regarding user’s feedback with one on one testing. In my experience you collect more unbiased data and can formula better reports with individualized testing.

I disagree with your assessment of poor facilitation and poor management regarding “proposed” scenario. “If the facilitator feels that the senior manager can not do that, don't invite that person to the focus group.” It’s rather difficult to un-invite the client from a web site review session of their own web site or suppress the senior manager from making comments.

Peter Buniak

I respectfully disagree with your assessment of focus groups. I find focus groups to be extremely affective for brainstorming... if managed effectively. In the scenario you proposed, whoever was leading the discussion should have taken focus off of the senior manager and drove opinion gathering from the other group members... facilitation 101. As for the senior manager, he needs a lesson in effective management techniques. Any good manager will strive to have his reports express their opinions freely. He/she should work on creating an environment where his/her employees feel comfortable and capable of expressing their opinions. If the facilitator feels that the senior manager can not do that, don't invite that person to the focus group. When forming a focus group, it's also important to pull people from different areas within the company. If it's a smaller company, don't invite the senior manager. So don't let this example harp on the importance of focus groups... this was a matter of poor facilitation and poor management style.

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