Go Beyond the Typical Focus Group

Go Beyond the Typical Focus Group


The objective was to provide an app developer with new concepts for smart phone applications and services based on findings from focus groups conducted by Vital Findings. Taking a unique, design-oriented approach to what is typically an established qualitative research project, Vital Findings improved upon the usual focus group methodology by incorporating visual note taking in the backroom of the focus group facility to capture, in illustrations, the respondents’ real-time ideas. The note taker’s imagery enhanced Vital Findings' iterative concept design process during the focus group sessions by helping participants respond to and build upon concepts developed in earlier groups. The imagery produced also acted as a communication aid facilitating the dissemination of insights to both the internal team and to the client.


Vital Findings was engaged by a major app developer to assist in the development of new smart phone applications and services targeted to several different consumer segments, from social mavens to young professionals. In addition to providing consumer feedback on the ideas themselves, the developer asked the Vital Findings team to improve the concepts using consumer feedback. To accomplish this additional task, the team needed to add a creative, ideation component to the traditional focus group methodology.


Rather than rely on the traditional focus group method, Vital Findings took a novel approach to this project. Recognizing the truth behind the old trope “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and synthesizing this with the conventional practice of taking notes in the backroom during a focus group, Vital Findings complimented both concepts by bringing in a visual note taker. Sitting behind the one-way mirror, the visual note taker furiously recorded the focus groups’ discussions in pictures.

Qualitative Research App Brainstorming

Rather than simply documenting the discussion, the visual notes were fundamental in allowing the focus groups to be truly iterative in their development of concepts. New concepts were brought to life for the client’s consideration as participants were brainstorming in real time in the adjacent room. As each new idea was discussed, the idea was incorporated visually into an existing concept; then this revised and expanded concept would be presented to the next group to be evaluated and improved upon. This process enabled respondents to provide feedback on the ideas of previous respondents.

At the end of the sessions, the visual note taker had captured in mural-sized renderings the highlights of each group. These visualizations allowed Vital Findings to share the results of this qualitative exercise with the client in a quickly digested and impactful manner, enhancing the firm’s ability – and ultimately the client’s ability - to leverage these insights in a meaningful way.


The use of a visual note taker is certainly not the industry standard, and it exemplifies Vital Findings’ talent for applying a design sensibility to a research project in order to deliver value above and beyond the expectations of the client. In this instance, the visual note taker served to strengthen Vital Finding’s iterative concept development process, achieving several important results.

First, by translating what the focus group participants were saying out loud into graphic renderings, the visual note taker made it easier to present the next group of participants with enhanced concepts so that they could tweak and expand upon these ideas. Through this process the Vital Findings team was able to better grasp the underlying needs driving consumer reaction to each concept. Ultimately, this process culminated in stronger, more developed concepts than might otherwise be possible.

Qualitative Research

Additionally, this generative concept ideation process allowed the Vital Findings team to learn a significant amount about the consistencies and differences across respondent groups. Because the team was able to speak to the reactions that different types of consumers had to different types of applications, they were able to dive deeper into the analysis of the viability of each final application concept. For example, if more tech-friendly consumers pushed the idea in one direction, the Vital Findings research team could determine whether the new direction resonated with mainstream consumers as well, or whether each group had distinct needs around each application idea.

Finally, the ease with which visual notes can be interpreted and disseminated was another important outcome of this project. The note taker’s imagery worked as a communication aid; capturing focus group results graphically allowed for quicker and easier internal team alignment. In turn, the team was then able to present the client with key takeaways from the qualitative research in a way that was easy to understand and impactful. The mural-size illustrations were unrolled and hung on the wall at the client’s office, making the results of the focus group truly easy to evangelize.


Vital Findings’ ability to produce qualitative research informed by a design sensibility can be applied to a wide range of projects. Even very established methods such as focus groups can be improved with a little creative tweak. Fitting questions for this methodology include:

  • Focus groups discussions are hard to nail down -- how can I get more tangible results?
  • I'm developing a new version of my product -- are my different target segments interested in the same potential improvements?
  • There are two distinct ways consumers could access my service through an app -- which is most intuitive and why?
  • I'm planning to test sketches for a new product concept -- how do I make sure they're as clear to consumers as they are to my product team?


  • Focus Groups
  • Visual Note Taking
  • Mural of Consumer Ideas

Innovative Methods

Visual Note Taking:
Knowing that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” Vital Findings created mural-size graphic representations of respondent-generated concepts in order to bring to life the key takeaways from a series of focus groups.

Iterative Design Process:
Each focus group tweaked and expanded upon the concepts developed by the previous groups, producing stronger, more fully-developed ideas by the end of the exercise.

Design Approach to Qualitative Research Reporting:
Vital Findings applied its strength in design to communicate findings from qualitative research in a visual manner that was both impactful and easy to absorb.

Consumer-Oriented Design:
Concept deliverables produced were deeply entrenched in the target consumers’ needs, wants, and priorities, providing actionable ideas for the client that would resonate strongly with those consumers.