Design thinking and focus groups to drive product innovation

Design thinking and focus groups to drive product innovation

I want to introduce you into a design for focus groups that integrates methods from design thinking. If you do not know what a focus group is go to my previous article. In brief, a focus group is a method of user centred design. It can be conducted to discuss ideas, concepts, routines with people. Additionally, it could also be a discussion about experiences with a product or opinions about a future product. An advantage, e.g., to a questionnaire, is that the moderator can ask about details and can direct the discussion. Contrary, at a disadvantage it can be difficult to moderate a discussion and steer it to cover all desired information. Also, a focus group will consist of a lower number of participants compared to a questionnaire.

The design explained in the following was used for product innovation. Instead of a moderated discussion I structured the focus group with activities from design thinking. With those activities there is a structure in the session and each activity initiated a discussion about another piece of information that I aimed to collect.

If you want to jump to the most interesting section, here are all sections:

What is it?

In this method I focused on product innovation. Before the focus session I conducted user research: a literature review, a competitive analysis, and a questionnaire study. These research activities helped me to understand the current state of technology, situation on the market, and user habits and interests. Based on these insights I developed ideas for future product ideas. Hence, the focus group session aimed to discuss feasibility and effectiveness of the ideas. Goals of the focus group were:

  • Identifying criteria to determine feasibility and effectiveness of the prospective product
  • Rank the product ideas

In Instead of a moderated discussion I decided to structure the focus group with activities from design thinking. The activities structure the session and keep the discussions focused on a goal.

Design thinking is an iterative, reflective and solution-based process to seek to understand the user (Dam and Siang, 2020). The process consists of five steps: empathize with the user, define your user’s needs, ideate by create and challenging ideas for solutions of the users needs, prototype those ideas, and test the solutions. I selected three design thinking activities or the focus group. All are within the define and the ideate step. Further, the results of all activities are connected.

  • Essential / optional characteristics of the product

The first task was as an easy starter to get the participants into the topic. In the beginning, all participants explained what they would have done in a situation in which the product aims to help. Without discussing the product, only let participants focus on their actions. Then, the participants identified criteria to determine whether their actions helped or not. During the discussion the participants completed an A3 sheet.

You can find a template for this activity in the section resources.

  • What is on your radar

Proceeding with the results from the first step, the participants ranked product ideas according to the criteria they developed in activity 1. After completion, the activity shows in an overview how much the product ideas fulfill criteria defined by the participants (Luma, 2012). This activity consisted of a large table printed on an A3 sheet. Again, the participants completed the sheet during the activity.

You can find a template for this activity in the section resources.

  • Rose-thorn-bud

Rose,-thorn-bud is an activity method to identify for each idea positive, negative, and and things with potential (Luma, 2012). The participants did this activity for their preferred 2 product ideas. Also, for this activity I prepared two A3 sheets to be completed, one for each discussed product idea. Dependent on the level of detail of the analysis this activity can have a duration between 10 to 45 min. For example, Mitre (2020) suggested an activity duration of 45 min.

You can find a template for this activity in the section resources.

What is the outcome?

Outcomes of the focus group session were:

  • Essential / optional characteristics of the product
  • A ranking of product ideas according to that criteria
  • A more detailed rating of advantages, disadvantages and potential of the favourite two product ideas

I used the information gathered in the workshop to: identify criteria to rank the product ideas, rank the product ideas, and understand individual advantages and disadvantages.

Required equipment

The minimal equipment that you need is a group of participants willing to participate, a room that offers a calm and relaxed environment, a clock (it can be the timer on your mobile phone), paper, and different coloured pencils. Those pencils are at best thick so you can easily see what your participants write.

Recommended additional equipment is a laptop or (better) a projector to show a brief introductory presentation and to visualize the timer for everyone. Also, I highly recommend you record the audio of the discussion.

There are some things that are nice to have and make the environment more inviting for participants. For example, I always offer a snack for the participants, e.g., a biscuit or chocolate. Snacks are brain food and presenting them on the table generates a relaxed atmosphere. I also used a simple table decoration. Decoration refers to things related to the focus group. For example, I printed the topic of the discussion on a card and put it on the table. Other things could be little images related to the discussion put on the table, or an object. However, it should not be too much, it should be related to the topic of the focus group, and it should not lead to a certain opinion.

How to run a focus group?

Define what you want to learn during the focus group. Then, define activities that will help the participants to discuss what you learn. Think about how many participants you want to invite to a session. From my experience, 3 – 5 people work well together in an activity. More than that and the people should be split up into two groups. A session could be run with two or more groups of people conducting the activities. Consider that steps will take longer if there are several groups of participants in one focus group, e.g., the introduction and the discussion of results after each activity. Some suggest to avoid inviting more than 6 people to one session (Madrigal and McClain, 2011).

Create a time schedule for the session. Account that some participants might not arrive on time, e.g., assume 5 min delay. The time schedule for a 1h focus group could look similar to this:

  1. 5 min – Welcome and introduction
  2. 5 min – Brief presentation of the focus group’s topic, e.g., with a PowerPoint presentation
  3. 7 min – Activity 1, 2 min introduction and example, 7 min activity
  4. 3 min – Discussion of the results of activity 1
  5. 12 min – Activity 2, 2 min introduction and example, 10 min activity
  6. 5 min – Discussion of the results of activity 2
  7. 12 min – Activity 3, 2 min introduction and example, 10 min activity
  8. 5 min – Discussion of the results of activity 3
  9. 5 min – Wrap up of the focus group

At least one trial should be run before the focus group to ensure there is sufficient time for all planned activities in the focus group session. Further, you can learn if the activities are explained clearly and if you get the results in the expected form.

During the focus group session, you as the researcher will be present, welcome the participants, introduces everyone into the goals and structure of the session and moderates the session. Follow your schedule. I found it helpful to visualize a time so that participants and you know how much time is left for each activity. For example, you can use the PowerPoint time from the resource section. Ideally, the time will have one audio sound to warn you additionally to the visuals when there is one minute left. If you can, ask someone to observe the session and make notes, this will be an additional source of information (Madrigal and McClain, 2011).

How to analyze the data?

I will keep this analysis section short. After the focus group you will have the audio recording of the session, and the completed activity sheets. The analysis depends on your research question. A relatively quick method for analysis that suits product information is a thematic analysis or thematic map analysis. You can find information about how to conduct a thematic map analysis in this blog post.


You have used the templates and have suggestions? Great. Let me know or leave a comment.


Dam, R. F. and Siang, T. Y. (2020). What is design thinking and why is it so popular?. Interaction Design.

Luma (2012). Innovating for people – Handbook of Human-Centred Design Methods. Luma Institute, LLC, Four Gateway Center, United States of America.

Madrigal, D. and McClain, B. (2011). Do’s and don’ts for focus frocus groups. Ux Matters.

Mitre (2020). Evaluate options – Rose, Bud, Thorn. Innovation Toolkit.

Share, if you like it:
Comments are closed.