Host a focus group to get valuable feedback

By the staff of El Estoque at

“I like the weather at the top.” According to our viewers, the weather module at the top left of our site, El Estoque Online, was as eye-catching as the dominant image, the sound bite, or even the photo blog. Who would have thought?

When organizing a focus group at the end of last semester, our main goals were to expand our perspective of the site, to increase viewer response, and to put a face on our analytics. By bringing in real people who read our site and providing a relaxed atmosphere that made for honest answers, we did exactly that.

In preparation:

First, we established group goals such as focusing on images, increasing readership, and producing content that attracts viewers. We got our supplies, including incentives for the participants (for us, pizza), screen shots of our website, a preliminary survey to determine the backgrounds of our participants, and the facilities we would use. While recruiting, we had to keep in mind that we wanted the group to be diverse, in terms of gender, grade, etc. Finally, we brainstormed specific questions to ask in a guided exploration of the site.

We also decided to do a trial run of the focus group with our print staff, just to be sure that the logistics and timing of the focus group would work.

The day of:

We started out with a preliminary discussion while the participants ate and filled out a survey about their backgrounds. Asking general questions like, “What do you look for on El Estoque Online?” or about their favorite and least favorite features on our site, we eased them into the event. In order to see what the most eye-catching parts of our site were, we handed out screen shots of our site and asked them to circle the first thing they saw. The last chunk of time was a guided exploration of the site in groups of two to four people. We began by letting them explore the site on their own for five to ten minutes. Then we conducted a guided discussion with our previously brainstormed questions.

After the activity:

Following the activity, we organized our results on a document and when we met as a staff, we elaborated on our discoveries. In our attempt to fix issues with our site, we tried to finalize concrete solutions.

Things we would do differently:

* The students who came did not represent a large enough portion of our readership and mostly came to eat pizza; we should have gathered an even larger group of students to expand our perspective of the site.
* The crowded facilities became noisy; we should have held the focus group after school and in a more private and quiet area. We might also consider doing several smaller groups rather than meeting with all of the participants at once.
* Many answers during both our preliminary discussion and during the guided discussion at the computers were vague or contradictory; in order to confirm that we made the right improvements to the site, we hope to hold a follow-up meeting with the updated site.
* In our deliberation afterwards, our time spent interpreting results to form concrete solutions could have been more productive, and the guided discussion during the focus group was difficult when the computers served as a distraction.

As critical and harsh as our participants were, the value in a focus group was clear. The material we received was a jump start to rethinking and redesigning. We never knew students weren’t interested in a mainstream movie review that they could find elsewhere or that they enjoyed seeing the names of people they knew more than anything else. We would have never guessed that some thought the “Next” button at the bottom of a story meant next page of the same story instead of the next story in a section. Specific insights and broader suggestions like that show why we would definitely commit to another one later on in our production, even if the viewers just “like the weather at the top” again.

Michelle Balmeo

Michelle Balmeo, MJE, is the adviser of The Whirlwind newsmagazine and online news publication at West Albany High School in Albany, Ore. She's done some print stuff, some video stuff, and some web stuff over the past 16 years as a student media adviser.

Michelle Balmeo has 66 posts and counting. See all posts by Michelle Balmeo

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