Lately, I have been doing a lot of brainstorms and groups with various clients. Often, I find that clients (and also my own colleagues) are thinking that we have to choose one of the two: ‘are we doing a , or a ?’

Well, I have news for you: you can combine both techniques! That might sound like a no-brainer, but I still want to write about it, to explain why it’s actually very powerful to combine both tools.

Focus group: finding and validating insights

For those not familiar with focus groups: these are sessions of roughly 1,5 to 3 hours in which you explore a given topic with a recruited group of people. The amount of people ranges anywhere between 3 and 8 (I wouldn’t go over 8 — or even 6 — to maintain a healthy discussion in which everyone comes to speak).

Goals for a focus group, can differ:

  • To explore a topic and gather insights (‘how are people experiencing purchasing a house?’)
  • To validate and test a hypothesis, concept or subject (‘what do you think investing in someone else’s mortgage?’)
  • To get a general ‘feeling’ for a market, customer segment or brand (name) (‘what associations does brand X bring to mind?’)

So in general, we can state that organizing a focus group helps you to better understand how people view a certain topic, brand, concept or product. A great tool that is often used, as it gives you rather deep insights in a short amount of time. Although not quantifiable (at this point), these insights do serve as a great ‘hunch’ for further exploration and (re)defining your design hypothesis.

Brainstorms: generating ideas for a challenge

Then there’s brainstorming: the favorite tool of any designer to come up with new, inspiring, invigorating ideas to the challenge at hand. Brainstorming (or sometimes referred to as ‘gamestorming‘) is so popular, because:

  • It helps you generate a large quantity of ideas in a short of amount of time
  • It helps you to explore, understand and play with a certain topic (that’s why LEGO serious play is hot)
  • It helps reach consensus about ideas and future concepts
  • It helps thinking ‘outside of the box’, i.e. getting to radical, new to the world ideas)

OK — so that’s brainstorming: generating ideas. The more the better, often done in groups and in corporate organizations often aimed to find ‘the next best thing’: ‘what will help us create a better (customer) experience and grow market X?’

Combining both tools: warming-up the brain to start the match

The reason why I often combine both tools in one session (often lasting 3 to 4 hours), is the following: it helps getting to better results.

Why? Because first, you ‘warm up the brain’ by means of a rather deep ‘verbal reflection’ or (intellectual) discussion about a given topic (i.e. the focus group), after which participants will automatically start to synthesize and process its outcomes and use it to ideate around improvements.

So, to be more precise, let’s look at an example. Let’s say I’m working on a new mobility platform for a car sharing company. I have two goals:

  1. Find out what mobility needs people have
  2. Brainstorm/co-create around this topic to generate new ideas for this platform

Given these goals, we could structure a 4-hour session as follows:

  • 0.00–0.15: Introduction session
  • 0.15–2.00: Focus group around mobility, exploring not just car sharing but overall mobility needs in life, and funnel it down to car usage (also see my previous article on structuring interviews)
  • 2.00–2.15: Coffee break
  • 2.15–4.00: Brainstorm, around the ‘ideal mobility journey’ of participants (*), based on outcomes focus group

*: if, for example, discussion topics during the focus group were centered around functional vs experiential mobility, the complexity of changing mobility providers (walking -> bike -> tram -> train -> tram -> etc.), or the importance of having the ability to ‘cocoon’ vs having the ‘freedom of the open road’, then the outcomes of those discussions are great stimuli for the group to brainstorm about.

To go short, this visual sums it up nicely:

  1. Explore a topic (diverge)
  2. Conclude/reflect on the topic and conversation (converge)
  3. Use focus group results for ideation (diverge)
  4. Let participants design concepts and pitch to each other (converge)

Focus groups and brainstorm can enhance each other

To conclude: next time you ‘have’ to choose between organizing a focus group or brainstorm, consider the option of doing both in one session. It makes the session as a whole more valuable, fun and engaging, as you explore and reflect on topics, but ideate around them, as well.

(Of course there are scenarios in which you want to do only one of the two, and not both. For example, when you don’t need any ideas (you can skip the brainstorm) or when you’re starting from scratch and have nothing to ‘reflect’ on (so you skip the focus group). However, both instances are rare, frankly speaking.)

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