Usability Testing vs. Focus Groups for Web Design: What's the Difference?

Usability Testing vs. Focus Groups for Web Design: What's the Difference?

If you want to have a successful website, there's no getting around the fact that you have to test, test, and then test some more. Testing is an important reminder that not everybody knows what you do or does things the same way you do. Unfortunately, usability testing isn't performed often enough or is done too late in the game. And many people mistakenly believe that focus groups and usability tests are one in the same, but they are completely different techniques.

When used in conjunction, focus groups and usability testing can help you build a user-friendly website that offers a satisfying experience for visitors. But contrary to popular belief, focus groups are not effective at assessing the quality of a website's user experience.

What Are Focus Groups?

A focus group consists of a discussion between a moderator and a small group of around 5-8 people. The discussion lasts about an hour and a half and covers a variety of topics. When planning a focus group, select participants who represent your target audience. Once you determine what you'd like to learn from the focus group, write a script for the moderator to follow.

The moderator presents ideas and designs to the group and takes note of their reactions. The moderator also makes sure that everybody participates and that the discussion stays on track. Focus groups are valuable because they give you a sampling of people's opinions, feelings, and attitudes. They are also helpful for sparking new ideas.

When to Use Focus Groups

Run focus groups if you have limited knowledge of your target audience or you're developing something new and aren't sure what people's reactions will be. You can also run focus groups to test the idea behind your website, gauge how people feel about the names of your website's features, or determine how your target audience perceives your value proposition. However, when it comes to determining whether your site works properly, focus groups are not appropriate.

The things you learn in a focus group are things you're supposed to learn early on in the website development process, before you even start web design project. While running focus groups later in the process can help you fine-tune your message, it cannot replace usability testing. Focus groups aren't a good source of behavioral data because there is always a discrepancy between what people say they do versus what they actually do. To put it simply, focus groups are a poor predictor of future behavior.

Obtain Behavioral Data through Usability Testing

If you want to learn how people really use your website and what problems they may encounter in the process, perform usability tests. Usability tests are one-on-one interactions between an individual and a facilitator. During a usability test, the facilitator shows a website, prototype of a website, or sketches of a web page to a user and asks him or her to figure out what it is, try to use it, or carry out key tasks. The facilitator then analyzes how well the user performs these tasks.

Usability testing allows you to assess how users perform specific tasks that are critical to the successful use of a website. Some metrics you might use to measure a user's performance include the time it takes to complete a task, the success rate, and the number of errors made. You could also have users rate different features of your site based on their ease of use.

Perform Usability Tests Early and Often

The goal of usability testing is to obtain quantitative data on user performance. Usability testing provides you with an accurate picture of the problems people encounter when using your website because they're based on observations of real people. Performing usability testing early on in the website development process is helpful because it allows you to identify problems with your website's design before they get coded.

If several people you test struggle with a certain feature of your website, you can safely assume that the majority of users will have the same problem. It's not easy to make changes to a website once it's already in use, so perform usability tests early and often. But remember that performing one usability test is better than performing none.

Focus groups and usability tests are often confused, but the two marketing research techniques have distinct goals. According to the usability expert Jacob Nielsen, the most important difference between focus groups and usability tests is that focus groups only reveal what customers say they do and not the way customers actually operate a product. In order to maximize the outcome of your website development project and make informed design decisions, use both focus groups and usability tests in your research. You'll be glad you did!

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Brandon Swenson

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