Education Focus Groups vs. User Studies —What’s the Difference?

Posted: Nov 15, 2017

Education clients have different needs when it comes to research. Often, we support them with focus groups and user studies. It’s not unusual for us to hear, “right — same thing, really.” Well, not exactly.

There are certainly many similarities at first glance — both types of research are qualitative in nature and rely on a neutral, skilled moderator and carefully prepared discussion guide to gather “on the ground” insights from administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Yet each has its own distinct benefits and utility, and can be leveraged independently or as complementary tools within the life cycle of a project or program.

We have found that reports from either approach become valued and long-lived references, whether we are working on an education product, campaign, or program. MMS Education’s measurement and evaluation team and user experience analyst offer some highlights below on what makes each approach unique.

 Focus GroupUser Study
FORMATSmall group discussions with a moderator. Most often conducted in person, but can also be successfully conducted via web meeting or moderated via an online forum.Individual interviews conducted by a user experience researcher either in person or via web meeting. A lot of data can also be gathered by observing participants on-site.
WHEN TO USEPrior to going to market, to assess the effectiveness of visual design and messaging with target audiences.Early in the design phase of a product or enhancement to assess ease of use and appeal with the intended user group.
BENEFITSVery effective for ideation and creative, collaborative thinking with target audience groups.Valuable way to identify barriers to usage, improve learning curve, completion rate, or efficiency and assess the overall user experience —particularly with consideration for the user’s often distracting environment.
METHODOLOGYParticipants react to concepts or prototypes and discuss their impressions, reactions, and suggestions.Participants interact with a prototype and are asked to show how they would go about completing priority tasks, and how those tasks would fit into a typical day.
PARTICIPANTSTypically 6 to 10 participants per focus group, 1 to 3 groups per target audience. Groups should be diverse enough to represent varying points of view, but similar enough to share common goals and challenges.Typically 6 to 8 participants per user type, representing the end user as closely as possible. For example, “teachers” may be too broad, whereas “middle-school science teachers” will give more accurate insights.
MODERATOR ROLEA skilled moderator is key in managing group dynamics. A lively discussion can generate invaluable ideas and insights, but a headstrong participant can throw the group off track or dominate the discussion.Putting participants at ease is key; a proficient moderator will set a nonjudgmental tone to the interview, encouraging participants to “think out loud” and providing assistance if they become stuck or flustered.

If you are looking to conduct research to better understand your education audience or how your product or program is perceived and/or used, MMS Education can help. Call us today at 866-382-6116 or fill out this form to get started.