When talking to our clients about focus groups and customer panels they invariably reply, ‘there’s a difference?’. Indeed there is, and it can have a lot of impact on the type of research you can do and the feedback you will receive.
If you conduct a focus group, you get a one shot deal. They will tell you what they think of your site or product, and then go away. All the data you get from them is received in isolation of any other factor. This might be good when asking about something definitive like a brand name or logo and asking ‘what do you think?’
A panel, on the other hand, offers a way of evolving your ideas and receiving feedback from the same people through the changes. A panel can be reconvened at regular intervals to monitor progress of, say, a new shopping site page, to see how their opinions have changed and if those changes are for the better or worse.
Naturally, the latter is more expensive, as the subjects need paying or rewarding for their time, opinion and loyalty over the course of a project. But, the information that your regular panel members provide can help bring a project from its origins to conclusion in a meaningful and structured manner.
So, you can see that the two distinct groups can serve very different purposes. For example, anything that is being researched as a concept, such as an advert or cosmetic site refresh, can go to the focus group for a snapshot of opinion and some yes/no answers to design questions.
On the other hand, when you need some ongoing feedback, turn to the consumer panel and you will see how their opinions evolve with your product. The downside of the panel is that you need some guarantee of open mindedness and a willingness to share opinion.
Another difference is that while both are traditionally run as face-to-face events, it is now easier to run a quick focus group over the Internet, allowing for the rapid collection of data. A long-running consumer panel is still best run as a face-to-face exercise to allow for a more detailed approach and the ability to observe the reaction of subjects.
Someone who starts out with negative thoughts may well harbour them through a project, no matter how it progresses and you might find that your panel runs out of love for the project long before you do. This is where companies that run these panels and groups try to find the right people, a task that would be tough for most businesses.
So, there can be a fine line between when to call in the consumer panel or when to get a focus group to do some opinion forming for you. Or, if your project or product is easily adjustable, why not try evolving it in front of the focus group and see their reactions and impressions change live on the day to try to shorten the timeline and development process. It’s amazing what some hard focus and nimble evolution can do.
What type of group do you think would benefit your company or product better?
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About Damian Rees
Damian has worked as a usability and user experience consultant for over 13 years. He has worked in senior roles within companies like the BBC and National Air Traffic Services where he has researched and designed for users in a variety of different contexts including web applications, voice recognition, and air traffic control interfaces. Follow Damian on twitter @damianrees