Moderated focus groups

What are moderated focus groups, and why should you conduct them?
Woman on a group zoom or web call

If you aren’t new to usability testing, you likely already know that testing alone doesn’t get the job done—it’s about how and when you test. Just like there’s an optimal time for unmoderated testing, there’s an ideal time for moderated testing, specifically remote or virtual focus groups. Focus groups have many ways to be conducted, including in person, online, or over the phone. 

Believe it or not, before human insight platforms and remote usability testing existed, in-person focus groups were the only avenue to hear from customers. Organizations invited groups of customers to offices to get their input on everything from product concepts and packaging to messaging. But like everything else, ways of collecting user feedback have evolved. 

In an information age when time is of the essence, and customer experiences needed improvement yesterday, there’ll be times when you can’t afford to wait to coordinate an in-person group and plan out the logistics. While in-person focus groups still exist today, many organizations and brands, big or small, are drawn to the speed and convenience of remote focus groups, which match growing appetites for all things digital.

Whether you’re pre- or post-development or part of a marketing, digital product, UX research, or design team, below you’ll find everything you need to know about remote, moderated focus groups and the best practices to keep in mind. 

What is a moderated remote focus group, and how does it differ from unmoderated groups? 

Moderated remote focus groups, or group interviews, are a type of qualitative research. These are similar to traditional in-person focus groups; however, they’re conducted remotely via video conferencing. It involves a moderator, asking a group of people about their behaviors, preferences, attitudes, and experiences on a topic. Participants can interact and converse with others while discussing a subject and offer in-depth details about their actions, thoughts, and feelings. This setting of brainstorming leads to people building on each other’s ideas, or even starting a friendly debate, allowing for deep diving into an idea or issue. 

Unmoderated focus groups are similar to moderated groups, but lack a moderator. Test participants get together in a remote meeting room and go through the tasks together while having a discussion or debate. This type of setting might be preferred by some organizations because not having a moderator present could encourage more honesty. However, while unmoderated testing is beneficial for its convenience and speed, a moderated focus group ensures the conversation can be steered in the right direction when it gets side-tracked, and everyone gets a chance to speak. Additionally, this test type allows for spur-of-the-moment follow-up questions and the opportunity for lightbulb moments that you may not have planned for. 

And remember, your testing doesn’t have to stop with a moderated focus group. More often than not, your product goals can’t be achieved with one type of study alone. Consider conducting both moderated and unmoderated focus groups to get the job done. As a best practice, your usability tests should be complementary, not competitive. 

Who benefits from moderated virtual focus groups?

Marketing teams have always relied heavily on focus groups to gather insights about brand and organization impressions and explore potential product and feature ideas.

Meanwhile, digital product teams, designers, UX researchers, and other development stakeholders can also get a lot of value by interviewing customers— especially if they’re in the early stages of developing a new product.

What can you test with moderated remote focus groups?

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

Here’s a friendly reminder that you aren’t your customer. Rob Krugman, Chief Digital Officer at Broadridge, tells UserTesting, “One of the things we often get caught up on is trying to create experiences based upon our needs. We want to create products and get people to use them. Consumers—they choose to do what they want. If you start there and start with the need of the consumer and work backwards, you tend to be in a much better location.”

The needs and demands of your customers can often change, so ensuring that you build the right feature at the right time while minimizing development risk and maximizing adoption potential is critical. If you make decisions based on guesswork, you face the potential for costly rework and lost time to market. Therefore, validate your ideas with those who matter—your customers. 

Moderated virtual focus groups are ideal for ideas that still need some cooking; this is when participants can help validate or voice concerns instead of evaluating a concrete product. For targeted help, consider the UserTesting needs and frustration discovery template. While this template is tailored for unmoderated, or self-guided tests, you can use the questions to inspire how you structure your focus group. 

Testing social media campaigns

When it comes to your social strategy, public opinions and trends can change in the blink of an eye. What was trending yesterday may not be trending today, and what works for your competitor may not work for you. While you might not be able to read your users’ minds, moderated focus groups come pretty close. 

As you look at social analytics and performance, you’ve probably asked yourself: 

  • Are my Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter posts pleasing my customers? 
  • Is my audience willing to share my message? 
  • Do I post too often or not often enough? 
  • What is or isn’t resonating with my target users? 

You can ask these kinds of questions to your users in a one-on-one setting, but to dive deep into the content and frequency of social messaging, it can be easier to ask a handful of people at a time—especially as no two social media users are exactly alike. To ensure you’re talking with a diverse set of your target audience fast, opt for moderated focus groups, which also offer the opportunity for probing questions. You can find targeted insights by moderating a friendly debate on why one prefers TikTok over Instagram or why one user is likelier to engage with your posts than another. 

Mining for new research areas

Another great motivator 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 optimal way to mine for future research ideas that you might not have even considered. For example, let’s say you’re part of a game development team. You’ve long been conducting usability testing 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. Because of your efforts, your product is at the top of the list in the app store.

Does that mean you’re done or that no more research is required? We hope not! A virtual focus group allows you to listen in on conversations among your target users. Get the answers to the following: 

  • What’s making them happy? 
  • Where are they playing the game 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 many ways to improve the gaming environment. The remote focus group can help you decide on the next project for your team and catch any potential issues before they bloom. 

Marrying focus groups with other types of testing 

Online focus groups can also be conducted to complement other types of testing, such as 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 allows you 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 in the spur of the moment when users build off of each other’s feedback. 

When should I use a moderated remote focus group? 

Remote focus groups can be conducted anytime during the product life cycle. However, we recommend running them before development to save time and budget if the feedback you receive is vastly different than expected.

There may also be times when the timing is critical. 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? Virtual 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. Or when your customer’s perceptions and experiences must align with how the organization views the product. Hint: you should always aim for this! Additionally, compared to 1:1 interviews, remote focus groups get you more bang for your buck when you need insights from multiple sources—and fast. 

What are the benefits of moderated remote focus groups? 


Remote focus groups are a cost-effective alternative to finding, renting, and maintaining interviewing facilities. It can be done using familiar, and often free, video conferencing and recording software. Especially if you have a tight budget, you’ll benefit from not having to account for travel expenses, video recording equipment, or refreshments for participants.

Comfort and reliability

Remote focus groups allow users to participate in more natural environments, like their homes, alleviating some of the uncertainty and shyness that participants may experience. Being in an environment they feel comfortable in also provides a bit of anonymity, so test participants are more comfortable giving honest feedback. Additionally, when participants don’t have to commute to an unfamiliar destination and only have to turn on their computer, they’re less likely to cancel the session. Minimizing the risk of cancellations ensures your planning efforts don’t go to waste and you don’t have any setbacks in your budget or timeline. 

A wider range of audiences 

The right solutions and user research platform can give you access to a diverse groups of users worldwide, so you can zero in on your target market. Compare this to an in-person focus group, where your participants are likely narrowed down by who’s local to the area and available, which may not be enough to fulfill your target market. 

The challenges of conducting moderated virtual focus groups and how to mitigate them

Unfortunately, no research process comes without any bumps in the road. Here are some common challenges you can expect with moderated focus groups and how to overcome each one. 

The challenge: technical hiccups

Similar to a work meeting, congregating online is bound to come with technical issues, from lagging internet to non-functioning audio or video. Before the session, double-check that your preferred meeting settings are in order, from the recording software you plan to use to the meeting software. And to ensure your remote focus group runs as smoothly as possible, set aside some extra time in the beginning to ensure you can hear your participants and that they can hear you. 

The solution: use common video conferencing tools 

Ideally, you’d use a video conference tool you’re already familiar with and can have IT support on standby in case anything goes wrong. It’s also a best practice to record your sessions, which you should communicate with your participants before they sign up. When the conversation is happening remotely, there are multiple screens of content, chats, and camera feeds to watch—which can get overwhelming. Combing through the recordings will be one of the best ways to capture those subtle markers of experience, like facial cues and body language, and mitigates any pressure to take notes during the session. Also consider allowing desktop and mobile participants, as some may have a preference, depending on their schedule and from where they’re tuning in. 

The challenge: distractions

Some participants may have more limited attention spans than others, so be prepared for all types of users, even more so in a remote setting. The benefits of in-person focus groups are that everyone’s grouped together, likely with their devices put away, and unable to hide not being present. But when participants contribute from home on their personal devices, they can easily get sidetracked by incoming notifications or online scrolling. 

The solution: prepare supplementary materials in advance 

Whenever possible, giving users some form of visual stimulation in addition to the conversation is essential. Visual aids can be as simple as making a slide deck of the basic topics you’ll be covering and the questions you’re posing. Or, you may want specific feedback on a video or prototype, which is the perfect chance to share your screen and ask pointed questions. 

As another tip, encourage your participants to turn their cameras on, so you can observe all the head nods, frowns, smiles, and everything in between. And to ensure everyone gets a turn to speak, coordinate calling on each participant per question, and encourage participants to utilize the chat feature to document their thoughts mid-conversation. 

The challenge: participant drop-off

Another thing to plan for is a no-show or two. Anticipating some drop-off is no different than conducting a focus group in person; sometimes, life gets in the way, and a participant can’t make it to your meeting. Having fewer participants than planned can be disappointing and costly, as that empty seat was a spot that could’ve been filled by someone else, and it means less feedback you’ll receive. 

The solution: send reminders 

To help prevent no-shows or last-minute cancellations, take the time to send out reminder emails. Consider sending out one or two, either a few days before the event or the day before. Reiterate the basics, and ensure that none of the information ends up being a surprise, including: 

  • Time and date (include multiple time zones if applicable) 
  • Whether or not the session will be recorded and how the data will be used 
  • Compensation details and timeline 
  • The session topic 
  • Meeting link 

Additionally, you may decide to over-recruit by one or two people to make up for any cancellations. And if everyone shows up, it means all the more feedback to pull from! 

The challenge: 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 phenomenon is less common with 1:1 interviews, where participants can speak freely since they’re the only one being interviewed. 

The solution: the fewer participants, the better 

To help combat peer pressure, follow the best practice of a healthy number of people, which is typically six to ten. 

As another best practice, when an opinion or observation is put forth, make a point of encouraging any dissenting opinions. Remember, healthy disagreement is an important part of maintaining the integrity of your research. Adding to this, if applicable, you might even point out that another team created the materials your participants are reviewing—so users can be honest without worrying they’re hurting someone’s feelings. 

On your mark, get set, test! 

All in all, the more you conduct remote, moderated focus groups, the easier they’ll become. And armed with the best practices and knowing the when and how, you’ll have all you need for better insights that impress stakeholders and create better experiences.

Want to learn more?

Bring customer perspectives into more decisions across teams and experiences to design, develop, and deliver products with more confidence and less risk.