Adding remote focus groups to your user research strategy

Posted on March 25, 2015
6 min read


A lot of remote, qualitative testing is done on an individual level.

However, it is possible to conduct group interviews-—often called focus groups—in an online environment. And not only is it possible, but it can also be a lot of fun!

Why remote?

Lots of companies conduct focus groups in-house. So what are the advantages of using remote focus groups instead?


Remote focus groups are a cost-effective alternative to renting or maintaining interviewing facilities. It can be done using familiar—and often free—video conferencing and recording software. There’s no need to account for travel expenses, video recording equipment, or refreshments for participants.

Realism and reliability

It lets users participate in more natural environments, like their homes, which removes some of the uncertainty and shyness that focus group participants can experience. It also provides a bit of anonymity, so test participants are more comfortable giving honest feedback.


With access online to millions of users, you can zero in on your target market and be certain that you’ll get the number of test participants you need, without worrying about getting them to a particular location.

Who can benefit from remote focus groups?

Marketing teams have always relied heavily on focus groups to gather insights about brand and company impressions, as well as explore possible product and feature ideas.

Engineers, product managers, designers, and other development stakeholders can also get a whole lot of bang for their buck with remote focus groups, especially if they are in the early stages of developing a new product. Ethnographies and interviews, as well as focus groups, can be conducted during the development stages to accomplish many goals, including:

  • Pitching an idea and gathering initial impressions of that idea

  • Mining for users’ expectations of a new product

  • Reviewing any initial wireframes or mockups

  • Verifying that the need you are attempting to fill with this new product is truly worth filling

What types of products or ideas would remote focus groups be good for?

Remote focus groups are great for ideas that still need some cooking; the users are there to brainstorm ideas and pose hypothetical concerns, rather than evaluate a concrete product.

Another great reason to conduct a remote focus group is if you hit a wall in your current research queries. Getting current users to talk at a high level about their experiences can be an excellent way to mine for future research ideas.

Remote focus groups can also be conducted at the conclusion of other types of testing, such as the qualitative diary or longitudinal studies, or quantitative surveys and analytics. In these instances, you already have a collection of data regarding the use and value of your product, and the focus group gives you the opportunity to verify the trends you’ve seen in the data. It also gives users a space to interact with each other. Sometimes, the best insights happen when users build off of each other’s feedback!

What are some examples of when you would want to use a remote focus group?

Keeping the user’s needs at the center of your design

Let’s say that you and your team are toying with a new app for managing finances. There’s always a need for that, but before you write a single line of code, you want to learn how people are currently handling their monthly expenses and income.

A remote focus group is an ideal environment in which to gather information about how people currently keep track of balances, spending, saving, paying bills, and so on. Because the participants are somewhat anonymous, and in the comfort of their own homes/offices, you’ll be able to get more genuine details about how they manage their finances.

Testing social media campaigns

Are your Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter posts pleasing your customers? Would they be willing to share your message? Do you post too often, or not often enough? You can ask these kinds of questions of your users in a one-on-one setting, but for something as simple as the content and frequency of messaging on a particular platform, it can be easier to ask a handful of people at a time. The online, social environment of a remote focus group can be an ideal testing ground for social media interactions.

Gathering insights when timing matters

Peak traffic for your site or product merits testing with a variety of methodologies. Are your holiday sales (or lack thereof) hurting your store’s brand perception? Are last-minute tax preparers expecting to churn out their returns on your app?

Remote focus groups are a fast and effective way of determining the value of your products in very specific windows of time, often when demand is high and it’s vital that your customers’ perceptions and experiences are awesome.

Mining for new research areas

Let’s say you’re part of a game development team. You’ve tested and revised the tutorial to get players up and running more smoothly. You’ve tested the controls and made them easier to use. You’ve even interviewed regular players, and tweaked the challenges for them as the game progresses. Your product is at the top of the list in the app store.

Does that mean you’re done? No more research required? We hope not!

A remote focus group gives you the chance to listen in on conversations among current players. What’s making them happy? Where are they playing it most? Are there any frustrations or workarounds that are left to be addressed? Are there any other games that are capturing their attention? There’s so much left to learn from your users, and so many ways to continue improving the gaming environment. The remote focus group can help you decide on the next project for your team.

What are some pitfalls to watch out for?

Technical hiccups

If possible, perform a technical dry run of the remote focus group setup. When you recruit your users, have them call in to the meeting setup and ensure that you can hear them, and they can hear you, and any visual aids are transmitting clearly. This includes the recording software you plan to use, as well as the meeting software. Some audio configurations are tricky to capture in recordings.

Speaking of which - you should definitely be recording your sessions. In-person focus groups are often being observed, as well as moderated, and it’s easy to pick up on physical cues, so you have an easier time discerning what is going on in the conversation. When the conversation is happening remotely, however, there are multiple screens of content, chats, and (in some cases) camera feeds to watch. Combing through the recordings will be one of the best ways to capture those subtle markers of experience, like facial cues and body movements.


As we all know, people have limited attention spans. If you’re conducting a focus group in person, it’s easy for participants to return to the conversation, but in a remote setting, it’s easier to remain distracted. Whenever possible, it’s important to give users something visually stimulating, in addition to the conversation. This can be as simple as making a slide deck of the basic topics you’ll be covering and the questions you are posing.

Participant drop-off

Another thing to plan for is a no-show or two. This is no different than when you conduct a focus group in person; sometimes, life gets in the way, and a participant can’t make it to your meeting. The best advice we can give you is to over-recruit by one or two people, just to make sure that you’ll have full conversations! A healthy focus group is comprised of 6-8 people, so plan for 7-10.

Peer pressure

Finally, there’s the notion of “groupthink”, which, among other things, can pressure participants to agree with each other and censor any ideas that don’t seem to mesh with the majority of the group.

This is somewhat alleviated by the remote setup (because as long as you don’t require webcams, the participants are spared the visual and environmental cues that appear when individuals agree on something as a group). But when an opinion or observation is put forth, your facilitator or moderator should make a point of encouraging any dissenting opinions. Healthy disagreement is an important part of maintaining the integrity of your research.

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