Running online discussion groups is like talking to my teenage sons

January 19, 2015

As a mum to young teenage boys (writes Sarah Clark) you may think I’d say that conversation is severely lacking in our household…except it’s not! Just so long as I’m not expecting them to be face-to-face, I do have regular meaningful conversations with both my sons. And actually I‘d say these long distance communications tend to be more informative, honest and unguarded than when we’re face-to-face. Less foot staring and fidgeting with more focus on the questions actually posed.

I’ve found the same to be true when running online discussion groups (these are a great way to access hard to reach, geographically dispersed or busy respondents and are particularly useful at the exploratory stage of a project; participants can get involved at times to suit them from their own home or office, and can interact with the moderators and the other participants). When there is no face-to-face contact, people tend to be more to the point with both their negative and positive feedback. There is no need for the niceties of extra words to ‘ease the blow’ or to be more effusive when giving praise. People are still as keen to give their opinion – they just add less ‘fluff’.

My sons and I are not in the minority: the ability to converse without visual contact is now widely accepted and we’ve been able to utilize this fully with our discussion forums. When creating the discussion forum it’s just like any other conversation – get the balance right with the first question and you can influence how quickly and enthusiastically the participants engage.

A recent discussion group for the Times saw participants accessing and responding to branded and unbranded static A/B images, interactive web links and prototype websites, all via their tablet devices. That’s plenty to talk about! And our respondents were keen to participate straight from the off, but we have to keep the conversation on track so it’s key that, whilst a forum is active, we maintain and moderate the conversation along. We use and introduce topics to gauge opinion and collect responses. Forum participants can also complete quick polls and surveys so comparative results can be collected and measured too.

We don’t worry if someone is more tentative to start – like my teenage sons they will have plenty to say, they just need the right question to get going. We happily support all participants through until they find their voice.
As the forum conversation can be used to collect opinions on a wide range of material, including prototype websites, specific tools and widgets, and electronic mail campaigns, it has proven a very versatile research technique.

However, whilst a discussion forum is a great way to collect attitudinal feedback from a large number of people enriched by the conversational element, it lacks the opportunity to surface behaviours, read emotion or gauge a visual reaction, meaning it isn’t the right tool for everything.

So whilst remote conversations keep me in touch with my sons I would not use them as the sole form of communication, and neither would we here at Web Usability. The discussion forums complement brilliantly our one-to-one lab based testing, to deliver both depth and breadth of user insight.