ARTICLE: Sarah Freitag

How to use digital focus groups to quickly gain actionable insights

Your EdTech company may already be in the practice of utilizing focus groups. They can be a great way to bounce new concepts off your users and glean insights about their preferences and mental models. 

But what about digital focus groups? 

You may be cringing at the very thought of hosting these events at all, let alone digitally. You might be concerned that they are less personal or effective when hosted remotely. However, with the right approach and tools, digital focus groups can be an extremely engaging and cost-effective way to gain crucial feedback. Here’s what you need to know. 

What is a Digital Focus Group, and Why are They Useful? 

As with in-person focus groups, digital focus groups represent an excellent way to quickly gain feedback on a proposed concept, feature, or idea for your EdTech product. They can also be used to glean important insights into your target users’ mental models. (Remember, though, that a digital focus group should never replace true user testing. It’s not possible to get meaningful usability results from a focus group session, so you shouldn’t attempt to do so.)

A digital focus group can take many formats depending on your goals. For example, if you want to gain feedback on a new concept or compare two or more design possibilities, you might share screens and have participants critique each one in turn. If you want to understand your users’ mental models, you might ask participants to walk you through a real-life situation that relates to your product (such as deciding which courses to register for or completing a homework assignment) and map it out on-screen. Or, if you want to understand your users’ preferences, you could ask participants to help you come up with solutions to a series of problems that you present. 

Regardless of format, the written responses and discussions sparked in a digital focus group should help you understand what ideas excite your users and identify areas of consensus.

In many ways, digital focus groups are simply a remote version of in-person focus groups. However, they do boast some advantages over traditional, face-to-face focus groups. Digital focus groups: 

  • Are extremely cost-effective. Rather than arranging for multiple participants to travel to a single location for an in-person meeting, your digital focus group enables you to gain feedback from 5-10 participants in 90 minutes or less. 
  • Allow you to quickly poll users from a pool that is unlimited by geographic constraints. This may be especially useful if your user groups needs vary depending on location (for example, if your product is used globally). 
  • Often result in a compilation of digitally submitted responses that make for much easier reporting. 
  • Make focus group sessions possible in situations where meeting in person would be logistically challenging (or even impossible). 

How to Avoid Groupthink Bias in a Digital Focus Group

The biggest potential pitfall of a focus group? A type of bias called groupthink. In any group discussion, you are bound to have one or more participants who are very comfortable expressing their opinions, while others are more comfortable hanging back. 

If you don’t take care to put some checks on this natural tendency, your key takeaways will be skewed toward the opinions of your most vocal participants. In addition, the more active participants can sometimes sway the opinions of others in the group, thus further magnifying the bias toward their opinions. 

The key to ensuring that you get every participant’s unbiased responses to your questions? It’s simple. Have your digital focus group participants write down their answers to your questions before discussing everyone’s responses as a group. Logistically, there are many ways to go about this. You could simply have your participants write down their responses on a sheet of paper, on a series of post-it notes, or in a Google Doc. Or you could use a program like Mural (more on that later), which allows users to share digital post-it notes on a shared screen. Either way, make sure you collect your users’ individual responses to spark discussion and save for your own synthesis. Their written feedback is as valuable as the discussion that flows from it.  

How to Conduct a Digital Focus Group for Your EdTech Product

Ready to conduct a digital focus group? Use the following tips to make it a success.  

  • Define your objectives. Make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish in your focus group and prepare all the necessary materials and questions ahead of time. Don’t try to stuff too many questions or activities in a single session. Be sure to leave enough time for your group to write out individual responses and discuss feedback together after each question. 
  • Pick the right set of digital tools. You can conduct a successful digital focus group using nothing more than Zoom or GoToMeeting (or any other remote meeting program that allows you to share your screen with participants). However, you should additionally consider using a tool like Mural, which bills itself as a digital workspace for visual collaboration. Mural allows you to share screens and enables your focus group participants to create digital post-it notes. Not only does this allow participants to seamlessly leave written feedback in an aggregated format, but it also helps you to reduce groupthink over the course of your session. Whatever program you use to facilitate your meeting, make sure to embed screens, videos, and prototypes within that program so that users aren’t forced to open multiple applications or switch screens midstream. If you decide to use a tool like Mural, make sure to send instructions to your participants in advance of your focus group session. This gives them time to familiarize themselves with the program beforehand so you can use the meeting time more productively. Finally, don’t forget to record your focus group session so that you and other stakeholders can refer back to it later. 
  • Keep your focus groups small. When it comes to digital focus groups, smaller numbers make for better discussion and ensure that everyone has a chance to speak. If you decide to cap your group at 10 people, invite two moderators and have your participants break out into two smaller groups for discussion. You can use meeting breakout rooms in Zoom or simply include separate meeting invites. Bonus points if you break participants into groups based on shared interests or behaviors (for example, you might create a subgroup of instructors who teach flipped classes or use a particular teaching methodology). 
  • Start with an icebreaker. Chances are, your digital focus group participants will be strangers to one another. Add to that the fact that your digital focus group is taking place remotely, and it’s no surprise that your participants will need a little coaxing to warm up to each other. Plan to start with an icebreaker exercise to loosen up the group and get everyone comfortable with sharing before diving into the meat of your meeting. If you are planning to break into smaller subgroups, save the icebreakers for the breakout groups.
  • Get the timing right. In general, digital focus groups work well when they are around 60-90 minutes in length. Any longer than that, and your participants will start to glaze over. Any shorter, and you may struggle to collect enough meaningful feedback. If you plan to host a brief digital focus group (anything under one hour), omit digital tools like Mural. Instead, split your participants into even smaller groups (ideally no more than three people per team). Participants should write their brief responses on post-it notes or in an individual Google Doc that can be shared later with the moderator. Instruct your moderators to call on each participant in turn to make sure everyone gets a chance to talk. In addition, moderators should take responsibility for recording notes from the session so that participants can focus on the discussion. 
  • Stress the importance of healthy debate. Let your participants know that you want their straight-shooting, unvarnished opinions. Welcome and encourage healthy debate. Attempts to persuade each other are fine so long as you have participants’ original written responses to go off of later. Make sure participants’ cameras are running so that everyone can see one another throughout the discussion. This enables the moderator to identify participants who look skeptical, excited, or uncertain and ask them to share what’s on their minds. 
  • Consider including a bank of images to help people react to ideas. For example, you might find a set of humorous memes or images to represent various responses to your questions (such as positive, negative, confused, and neutral). Using images in this way can be a way to inject humor and spark conversation.

Digital focus groups can be an extremely useful tool. By following the above tips, you can be sure to plan sessions that are as easy to pull off as they are revealing.


  • Photo of Sarah Freitag
    Sarah Freitag

    As Director of UX Research, Sarah draws on her deep understanding of EdTech users and her background in research, design and business strategy to enable our clients to make confident decisions that result in products that solve real needs and create demonstrable impacts on their business’ bottom lines. Like her design-side counterpart at Openfield, Sarah is responsible for fostering collaboration, team development and for bringing new strategic initiatives and methodologies that allow our company to stay ahead of the curve of what EdTech users truly need to realize higher levels of learning and teaching success. Sarah is an avid reader and an adventurous explorer. Highlights from her favorite travels include Morocco, Peru, Italy, Denmark and France. With the recent pandemic-induced reduction in travel, she makes it a point to fulfill her wanderlust with another one of her passions, cooking and baking, by experimenting with recipes inspired by cultures around the world.

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