Empathy, Honesty, and Deeper Insights: The power of online focus groups in the product design process


By: Garnette Weber, CEO, itracks

In today's fast-paced, digitally connected world, the process of designing a new product has evolved significantly. Gone are the days of “build it and they will come” as consumers have high expectations for products with the exact feature set and user experience that meets their needs.  In my years as CEO of a couple tech companies and a director of a health product company, online focus groups and in-depth interviews have provided an effective approach to deeply understand consumer needs and preferences.

I recall an online focus group using our software that was conducted for E.ON, a European energy company, where the CEO and other C- Suite executives were in the virtual backroom - a private space in itracks’ focus group software where stakeholders and other observers can observe the focus group taking place in real-time, while remaining unseen to participants. As a bit of background, the E.ON C-suite had been receiving quantitative data for years that indicated a billing issue that had not yet been rectified. On this particular day in the focus groups, there happened to be a woman who had experienced some major personal challenges as a result of this billing issue. She became emotional while explaining these problems, and the C-suite observers were able to witness this first hand from the backroom.

Witnessing these emotions first-hand, and knowing they had been caused by a known issue at the company they led had a significant impact on the CEO – so much that the CEO actually called the moderator of the focus group later that evening to explain that the woman had remained in their thoughts since, and asked if her issues had been resolved and if flowers could be sent as an apology.  The moderator (who then relayed this story to me), replied that yes, “Everything has been resolved for her and I can arrange to have flowers sent, but do you want me to send flowers to the other 10,000 people who have been similarly affected by the same billing issue as well?”

The experience gave the CEO and the rest of the C-suite team an immersive experience, resulting in a newfound empathy for clients that were experiencing issues with their technology.  Even though they were previously aware of the issue through quantitative survey research, the more human experience of observing clients in the backroom gave them the emotional intelligence to drive the business change, and the issue was fixed (for everyone) within the week.

Results like this are relatively common in qualitative research, and can have a major impact on the effectiveness of Product Management, at all stages in the design process. Here are a few ways, and reasons that, in my experience, online focus groups have proved highly helpful to my working teams and our clients when designing new products.

Done properly, and using the right tools, online focus groups provide much more insightful qualitative feedback than incidental or informal conversations.

Honest and Unbiased Input

Online focus groups can provide participants with a level of anonymity they may not have in face-to-face settings, especially if the group is done via text chat or using a tool that allows for facial anonymity.

This anonymity encourages honest and candid feedback. Participants may be more comfortable sharing their opinions and concerns without the fear of judgment, leading to richer insights. To ensure unbiased input from customers, I recommend that the moderator of the focus group should not be someone too close to the product and that the product team instead connect via the virtual backroom or separate “viewing room” for focus groups.

I have been in product interviews where the participanst provided excellent feedback on perceived issues with the product, and in response the product manager started defending the product.  This quickly communicated to the participants that negative feedback on the product was causing stress to the product manager, making them less likely to continue providing this very valuable feedback.  Once we moved the product manager to the virtual backroom and had a more neutral moderator take over for later sessions, the participants felt more at ease giving unbiased feedback which is essential for identification of problem spaces and good product design.

Recordings and Automatic Transcription

Most dedicated online focus group platforms offer features for recording sessions and automatic transcription of sessions, which can be valuable for later analysis. You can revisit discussions and review participant reactions, ensuring that no valuable feedback is overlooked during the product design process.  I especially like having access to the screen share recordings. Video clips or verbatim provide the start to good “stories” to provide input into the product requirements documentation process.

Real-Time Collaboration

Dedicated online focus group platforms often include chat features that allow both observers and stakeholders to interact with the moderator in real-time. This dynamic interaction can spark creative ideas and uncover nuances that might have gone unnoticed in a traditional setting.

Ideally there is a virtual backroom where the product team and stakeholders can provide immediate feedback and guidance to the moderator through text messages during the research session. This ensures that the session stays on track, important follow-up questions asked, and any unexpected issues can be addressed promptly.  Virtual backrooms facilitate collaboration among the research team and stakeholders. Different team members can watch the session from different locations and share their insights and perspectives in real-time, enhancing the depth of analysis. As well, if the discussion prompts an idea for improvement, the product manager can communicate this to the moderator via the backroom chat so that the moderator can run the idea by the participants immediately, instead of waiting for the next focus group or iteration of the product.

Overall, online focus groups offer a versatile and efficient means of gathering critical insights during the product design phase. They break down geographical barriers, save costs, and provide a convenient, honest, and diverse pool of participants. The virtual backroom can provide a great collaboration environment and process for the product team to gain empathy into the customer experience.  When used strategically, online focus groups can help you create a product that resonates with your target audience, setting you on a path to success in today's competitive marketplace.

Consider integrating online focus groups into your product design process and unlock their potential to transform your innovation efforts.