The Customer Experience Experts

Focus Group Icebreakers

Home / Blog / Other Fun Stuff / Focus Group Icebreakers

Focus Group Icebreakers

A focus group is an integral research tool used to reveal the needs, emotions, and reactions of users. Prompting these spontaneous reactions provides valuable insight into UX issues and concerns before interface design and after implementation. By observing a focus group’s dynamic in a controlled setting, we can assess ideas that may not surface during interviews or surveys. Unlike other methodologies such as in-depth interviews or surveys, focus groups are typically used in early stages of research to explore or generate a hypothesis and to garner a broad range of information relatively fast. Moreover, focus groups are useful for not only collecting valuable insight, but for observing interaction and thought processes in a group context. This group setting also helps to uncover potential social stratification among participants and to reveal a degree of unanimity regarding the topic at hand. Also, when paired with observational UX methodologies, focus groups can provide more robust findings helpful in validating research results. However, for analyzing sentiments and behaviors specific to an individual and for generalizing findings, in-depth interviews or surveys are much more effective UX methods than focus groups.

To generate accurate, ample insight from focus groups, we must immediately create an environment in which respondents feel comfortable and safe opening up and sharing their perspectives and behaviors. Unfortunately, creating an environment conducive to unveiling such deeply rooted emotions and reactions with strangers is a major challenge. Icebreakers are especially helpful to establish a safe environment and build trust within a group – not to mention engage participants. When individuals hear themselves speak in the room before the focus group, it can mitigate anxiety and prime them for delving deeper into the following research task/s.

Before the focus group icebreaker, the researcher should lay the foundation for open discussion by introducing the group and addressing the process, nature of the research, desired end goal, and protection of identity and confidentiality. It is also crucial for the researcher to acknowledge any potential features of the room that may cause discomfort (e.g., cameras, mirrored wall). Once these elements are discussed, an icebreaker is a great way to transition into the more serious or personal questions at hand. By skipping a warm up exercise, respondents may feel reluctant to share answers that could reflect poorly on them.

In order to establish good rapport with a focus group and garner honest and comprehensive feedback, we suggest trying these creative icebreaker exercises:

1. Tech Effects:

What technology innovation made the most impact on your life and why? What innovation do you like the least and why? Or, more specifically, what part of owning/using a smartphone has made the most impact on your life and why? What about the World Wide Web has made the most positive impact on your life?

2. Best or Worst:

In other words, what’s our favorite or least favorite ___? Have everyone identify their favorite [insert item or concept]. For example, if you are getting ready to do a focus group about potential website enhancements you can have users identify their favorite or least favorite web feature and briefly explain why. . If you are doing a focus group about mobile usability testing, have each person identify their favorite/least favorite app. Everyone must list a different one.

3. One-Worders:

This icebreaker allows the group to get familiar with one another by sharing their thoughts on a common topic. First, divide the participants into subgroups of four or five people by having them number off. This allows participants to get acclimated to the others in the group. Mention to the groups that their assignment is to think of one word that describes X; give the groups a minute to generate a word. After, the group shares the one word that describes X with the entire group of participants. For example, with a session about mobile usability testing, you could request that the group think about their smart phone and come up with one word to describe it.

4. Draw a Card:

Give each person in the focus group a notecard. Pick a topic and let them write the questions. For example, during a mobile testing focus group, choose “mobile apps” as a topic then have users write out a question for anyone in the group to answer about mobile app/s. For example, “If you could have only one app on your phone what would it be?” or, “Approximately how many apps do you have on your phone?” Then pile all cards face down, in the middle of the group, and let people draw a card and share their answer with the entire group.

5. Fill in the Blanks:

Participants are given an incomplete sentence and asked to complete the thought. Two unfinished sentences can often reveal the wants and needs of the consumer and can be modified to fit the specific research at hand:

“When it comes to______, the one thing that makes me delete a particular app is…”
“[Client company], you would improve if…”

It is sometimes helpful to pose questions in the third person, prompting participants to formulate answers more consciously given more ambiguous stimuli.

“Websites with_____ make me…”
“When people buy an app…”

6. Worst Case Scenario:

Similar to brainstorming, participants are asked to offer a bad idea, the worst idea they can possibly think of, as a solution to the problem at hand. The bad ideas are then presented as stimuli to the group. The group is then prompted to turn the bad ideas to good ideas as people are often better at determining what they don’t like as opposed to what they like. In addition, it allows the group to come up with solutions without as much pressure. For example, “What was the worst idea when it comes to design of websites or an app that you have used?” The moderator and the research team review reactions and perceptions that surface during the exercise. With this insight, a research team gains valuable solutions.

Since each research project is unique, it is important to modify the focus group icebreaker to fit your objectives or topic. Regardless, an icebreaker should not be overlooked. Should you have any other clever warm-ups for focus groups we would love to hear them – please do not hesitate to reach out to us at