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

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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?

User research is a crucial component of any website or product development process. It helps you  identify the needs of your users and demonstrate how your website, intranet, or application can be improved.

Focus groups and usability testing are two really valuable branches of user research, but with some key differences.

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's thoughts and attitudes on ideas and/or designs.

Usability testing, meanwhile, involves using a one-on-one interaction (i.e. one person and one facilitator) 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 and 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.

Photo of a user group setting.

Focus group pros and cons


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, because one vocal person in a group can influence what everyone else says.

Usability testing pros and cons

  • Usability testing is more expensive than focus groups, so you hear from fewer people.
  • It gives you much more detail on each person and their thoughts/opinions.
  • It's more reliable (because there aren't other people influencing each person).
  • It 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).

example of user testing, client talking to attendee about the latest work

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 when 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, from who they are, to 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 then use the method that's best suited to give you the specific information you need.