Build together: why co-design beats focus groups
Build together.
Build together.
8 January 2023
Focus groups are out. Co-design is in. Start leveraging this crafty methodology in your practice.
Over the past few decades, the once almighty focus group has fallen from its spot as the go-to method for qualitative researchers. 
While many researchers continue to harp on its virtues, the potential pitfalls are widely discussed in the user research community. Focus groups are increasingly being replaced by other methods like co-creation—with good reason. This holds especially true within the world of user and UX research.
What are the challenges with focus groups? 
Critics often point to the traditional focus group’s tendency to promote groupthink, where the human desire for social consensus wins over sharing individual truths or experiences. Unique perspectives are sometimes drowned out due to an unwillingness to be different in the context of a group, general shyness or fear of speaking in front of others, and other personality traits.  
Often, one or two strong voices emerge, and so too does their echo chamber. For example, let’s say you’re leading a focus group to understand how millennials make decisions about large purchases such as appliances. You provide a few minutes to jot down answers to some guiding questions and then open the floor for a group discussion.  
The first person to speak walks everyone through a process whereby she recently saved for six months via a budgeting app to purchase a new refrigerator without affecting other lines on her budget. She meticulously tracked sales and promotions and waited for the precise moment when the price was right, and she had enough cash to fork over.  
Next, someone shares a similar process with slight differences. At the same time, the people who made impulse purchases and paid extra for fast delivery while maxing out their credit limit may think twice before sharing their process. 
They may feel embarrassed about their haphazard approach or subtly second-guess what “they usually do.” This could lead them to change their narrative to fit the group: “Well, I did look for sales a few times and I sort of cut down on drinks that month, so I guess I did some financial planning around the purchase.” 
In other words, perhaps subconsciously, they’re grasping at straws to fit in, and it becomes a genuine challenge for a focus group moderator to draw out the true, individual truth. 
Enter: co-creation
To be sure, skillful moderation can mitigate these and some other issues inherent in focus groups—but I’d argue for most user researchers, there is a better way to harness the power of a group to generate actionable and nuanced insights: co-creation. 
Co-creation is a methodology whereby you work with your target audience to generate new ideas or solve problems. More than a methodology, it’s a mindset: you regard your users or customers as partners in your organization’s ultimate goal of delivering the best products or designing the best experiences.  
As with any partnership, everyone comes to the table with their strengths and weaknesses. In co-creation, your target audience or current users will likely lack expertise in product development. Co-creation isn’t about asking your user base to tell you what to build or how to build it—that’s still your job.  
However, your user base are experts in their own experience: they know better than anyone what motivates them, what they struggle with, what inspires them, and so on. Put that together with your keen research abilities and product development expertise and, well—what a team!
So, how do you do it?
Co-creation is a general term that encompasses quite a few potential research methods, sometimes in a group setting and sometimes one-on-one, researcher and participant. Below, I’m sharing one of my favorite co-creation methods in detail, but when you start thinking about co-creation, get creative! Depending on your goals and product, the possibilities are many. The idea is that you get creative and collaborative with your user base to churn out more data about their perspectives based on your research goals. 
Design a new one: a co-creation method
This is one of my go-to methods in a group setting, particularly because it involves getting crafty. Essentially, you provide a bunch of art supplies and ask a group of users to design a new version or part of your product. For example, you may ask them to reimagine your home screen if you have an app.   
The best way to execute this method is to start with some guided questions that users can answer on their own to get their creative juices flowing. Going with the above example of an app home screen, you may want to ask them to jot down what they find useful about your app, what’s challenging for them, what needs it doesn’t meet, and what they wish it did that it doesn’t.   
Next, ask your participants to use all the available art supplies to reimagine your home screen. Encourage them to use their imaginations and not worry about feasibility: they should create the app of their dreams without technical constraints in mind.
When the group finishes, let each person stand up and share what they created and why. Be sure to ask follow-up questions because understanding the nuances behind what they churned out is the research data you will need to code and analyze later.  
Remember, this is not to get specific feature ideas or UX/UI insights. The purpose is to use what each participant creates to understand their priorities, challenges, behaviors, and motivations so you and your team can churn out actionable insights. 
For example, let’s say a participant creates a translation feature at the top of your app’s home screen. They explain parts of your app aren’t localized in their native language, which is challenging for them. As a researcher, your takeaway isn’t “we need a translation feature!” but rather, this specific user has a significant pain point around parts of the app that are not localized. That’s data to be coded and analyzed with the rest later on. 
Tip: have someone on your team take copious notes in addition to recording the session (with participant permission, of course). The person leading the discussion before and after your participants create their masterpieces should be someone other than the person taking notes or handling whatever device is recording. Their job is to keep the discussion fun and conversational without trying to multitask.
Rules of thumb with co-creation
As I mentioned, there are a ton of creative (and less so) methodologies within the realm of co-creation. You can search for ideas or brainstorm with your team to determine which works best for your specific research goal. With that in mind, here are a few things to keep in mind no matter which method you choose:
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that co-creation means your users will tell you what to build or how to build it. Look at co-creation to better understand your user base’s inner workings: challenges, behaviors, motivations, what they prioritize and why, and so on.
  • Try to balance group discussions with individual work to limit groupthink and similar issues arising when conducting research in a group setting. One great way to do this is to have each individual do some visual, documented activity that they share 
     there is too much discussion. This gives a person space to think on their own and holds them accountable for expressing their views despite what others say, as they’ll have a visual that represents their experience.  
While focus groups may have their role in qualitative research, user researchers increasingly favor co-creation methodology for group research that mitigates some of the inherent challenges with focus groups and yields rich and actionable insights. Overall, our mission is to advocate for our users—what better way than to engage in a research partnership that plays to everyone’s strengths?

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