Focus group design for teens

In the first half of 2017, our work has been largely defined by the two pilot phases in which we’ve been sharing Oxplore with specific groups and regions. When we haven’t been travelling to schools to meet with young people, we’ve been planning these visits and working out what feedback we most need to shape the development.

Gathering this feedback has been incredibly helpful – and taking the time to pilot Oxplore has been very worthwhile. We have run 12 focus groups with 162 young people, and each one of them has surprised us with their ability to grasp not only what we are trying to achieve, but how we can use the digital tools to achieve our aims. Their digital upbringing was particularly noticeable in our recent visits to the East Midlands where we were discussing UX, interface and technical features. They were clear on what they expected from a website – and many even bandied about terms like ‘OAuth’, ‘CAPTCHA’ and ‘hamburger menu’ like developers!

A challenging aspect of these visits has been coming up with activities that help us to gauge their true feelings in an engaging way while still getting the data we needed. We were clear that the traditional focus group format of sitting around talking was not going to work for our groups – we needed something to keep their attention. We merged our need for qualitative feedback with sessions designed to be both reflective and interactive.  To gauge their preferred other websites, they voted in ‘Web Awards’ which not only asked them to reflect on the features of the sites they most like to frequent, but gave us evidence of user interfaces we might seek to emulate. To help us prioritise the development of new features, they spent ‘cash’ (ahem, stickers) on the features stuck up around the room. To help us refine the scope of those features, they looked at site designs and answered prompts about the process of registration, commenting and more.

While collating the outcome of these activities and more, we’ve also been reflecting in the team and with our developers how simply letting the young people loose with a tablet or PC in a computer room is in itself an excellent barometer of how well the site achieves its aims. In many cases we struggled to get the young people off of the site and onto the tasks. In a few schools they even used the Inspect Element function to view the CSS and temporarily edit the site to what they thought it should look like… (more Big Questions about footballers, apparently).

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With technical development now back underway, our next task is to ensure that we make the very best of all this input.

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Reaching ‘Generation Zzz’

The aspect of the Oxplore project that I am asked about most often is how we are using social media to reach our target audience of 11-18 year olds. This group are naturally social media savvy – indeed in some of the schools we’ve been in thus far, pupils have described social media as one of their main ‘hobbies’! However, this group are also notoriously hard to market to – often referred to as  ‘Generation Zzzz’. So, we’ve been using the past months and our pilot periods to test what works to ensure we divert our efforts to the most effective tasks when we launch nationally.

Our starting point is by ensuring we are everywhere our users are – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat. If another network pops up and grows in popularity – we will move there too. This is a necessary flexibility in the social world. We’re already slightly victim to the more private networks like WhatsApp that our audience are moving towards.

social-media-2173511_640We have a fairly busy programme of scheduled ‘organic’ or free content. Throughout both our pilots, I’ve been scheduling educational but easy to digest content around the theme of ‘Big Question of the Week’. This is a content-led approach which helps us build up our reputation for interesting and provocative approaches.

In this organic content, each network has its own challenges and opportunities. For example, on Instagram it obviously has to be a visual post and the current scheduling option from Hootsuite is not ideal, but hashtagging makes the content very discoverable. On Facebook, it is tough to break out from those who have already decided to follow your page but the content delivery types are very varied.

We are advertising on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Thus far, my general opinion is that the targeting options on Facebook and Instagram are more useful for reaching our audience because we can segment by age into the 13-18 age group.

Twitter does reach a large audience and the clickthroughs are actually slightly higher over the period, but the segmentation options do not give me enough reassurance that we are reaching young people. Twitter does not gather date of birth or more detailed information about the users, it segments by interests and some characteristics as well as location. The trends seem to suggest 11-18 year olds are less active on Twitter, and their number (11.7% of all users) is dwarfed by the 18+ demographic.

Facebook and Instagram both offer much more tailoring because of the information they hold on the users. It is very easy to build up a profile by age and location (down to the km) and include potential interests from an unlimited support. While the anecdotal wisdom I’ve heard always suggested that younger people were less interested in Facebook, statistics suggest 84% of the demographic have a Facebook account.

I’m using the pilot period to trial different advert types and target different segments. The main purpose here is to see how broad or narrow to set the audience for the best return. For example, in one test I ran a split test across three groups: one for every young person in the region, one for young people with some specifics (like maybe they liked science or reading) and their current level of education, and another targeting down to specific groups they might be in or the pages they might follow. There is something a little Goldilocks here, and the evidence so far suggests that Mother Bear’s porridge is getting the most bites!

The social network advert managers do tell me how the ads are performing, the cost per interaction and some of the demographic details (like, for example, all our advertising is currently hitting 2/3 girls and 1/3 boys). However, in creating the advert I’ve taken the time to use the simple campaign URL builder so that I can track the source of the visits through into our Google Analytics. This shows me that in general most of our mobile referrals spend a shorter time on the site than users coming from our sources (like Googling us). So, getting them there through social media is only one part of the challenge when dealing with Generation Zzzz….

 

Piloting Oxplore – again

The boxes are packed and ready for the road. The social media is all scheduled for release. Over 300 envelopes addressed to schools have been dispatched to the post room. Five brand new Big Questions are live at www.oxplore.org It must be time for Oxplore’s second pilot!

Our first pilot focussed on the North East. This time we’re seeking to gather feedback and information on site use from a broader area – Wales, Yorkshire and Humber, and the East Midlands. As with the North East, we’ve chosen these areas by triangulating several databases around progression to HE and to Oxford.

Our activity this time involves school workshops and focus groups in Wales and the East Midlands. In Yorkshire and Humber, we’re running a mainly digital pilot to help us see how finding us that way changes the site usage.

Lgears-818464_960_720.pngast time we were interested in how young people responded to our concept of Big Questions and the content on the site. This time we’re interested in how users experience the site. Does it behave as they’d expect? Is there anything about the interface we’ve designed that they dislike? These details are the difference between people sticking around on the site or moving on. They are the cogs in our machine.

“If the user is having a problem, it’s our problem.” —Steve Jobs

With such great content from across the University of Oxford we’re keen that the technical detail doesn’t scupper our chance to engage young people. We also still have some technical development time before our launch later this year. This pilot is well timed to give us the chance to seek user input on new functionality like registration.

As before, we will be combining the opinions we hear in focus groups with the data we can gather from Google Analytics. In our first pilot, the overall picture was positive with proof of some things we expected plus some areas we need to think further about. What we’ll find out this time… who knows!

So what makes a big question big?

Since the beginning of the project, the team has been keen to pinpoint what exactly makes a question big and truly engaging to our target audience. Discussions with our original user consultation group combined with findings from the most recent pilot and data analytics have contributed to our understanding of this. Likewise, entries to our Big Question competition have given us a flavour of the range of topics which appeal to young people. Here’s a whistle-stop tour of what we’ve found…

Topics which are not traditionally covered in the classroom generally tended to attract longer visits from students on the site (e.g. do guns hurt more people than they protect?). Interestingly, this supports Oxplore’s aim to go beyond what’s learnt in school and engage students with subjects and debates they might not have ever considered before.

The weird and the wonderful – which included time travel, aliens and ghosts-  cropped up time and time again in the competition entries, and in the top rated and viewed lists suggesting that teens are intrigued by some of the world’s big mysteries which test human understanding. No pressure for our academics and content developers then :)!

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The morbidly curious topics such as ‘is the death penalty ok?’ seemed popular with the age group. Perhaps again because this is not likely to covered by their teachers. A couple of competition entries also indicated an interest in what happens after death with a particularly interesting entry being: ‘what happens after we die, do we wake up?’

Topics linked to power and truth fared well (e.g. can we live without laws? Should under 18’s be allowed to vote? Should you believe the history books?) Perhaps this relates to how young people are often presented with little choice but at the same time overwhelmed with vast amounts of information from those around them (teachers, parents, their peers, the Internet etc.). In light of this, it may be difficult for them to decipher what is true and what is useful. Maybe envisioning a world where there could be more freedom is an exciting prospect?

The future was a hot topic (e.g. ‘would you want to live forever?’) and a repeated theme in the competition entries (e.g. ‘Should we colonise other planets in the future?’). This was not altogether surprising considering the young age of the target audience and how at school they are likely asked to consider what they want to do post-exams and beyond. Also with all the unrest shown in local and global news, the world must seem like a pretty unpredictable place right now – to your average teenager- who can see a host of upcoming unknowns.

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So there it is- what makes an Oxplore question big and thought-provoking to an 11-18 year old? One which covers a topic that moves away from what’s learnt at school, one that’s mysterious and slightly unusual in nature, one which challenges the information they’re already exposed to, and one that allows them to dig deeper into future unknowns.

We now look towards our next pilot study which’ll focus on the user journey and try to extrapolate what it is that keeps a student engaged as they navigate through a big question. This will be incredibly useful to us as we continually try to develop our materials to make them relevant, informative and interesting for young people to venture through.

Consolidating our findings

We learned much from our first pilot of the Oxplore site in the North East. We ran 6 school-based focus groups with 73 young people from years 7 to 12 as well as collecting data on site usage through Google Analytics.

The focus groups offered a space for us to get into detail as well as hear free form feedback about what users might expect from the site. We had several interactive tasks for them to reflect on, as well as plenty of time to discuss their more general thoughts and opinions. It was interesting to hear the similarities and differences between Year 7 students and Year 12 students in their approach to the concept of Big Questions and in how they viewed the content on the site at present. But, as with all good discovery processes, there was no simple answer and much to consider. Not least because we had lots of notes and findings to transcribe back at the office…

cookies-memeOur Google Analytics data brings together the users who first heard about the site through our school workshops as well as those who came to the site from the posters we distributed in schools and social media. There is one substantial barrier for us with our age range of 11-18: Google simply can’t (or maybe won’t) provide demographic (age, gender) or interests data for those under 18. However, we can still get insights into other aspects of site usage. We were pleased with average length of time each user spent on the site and due to some technical wizardry from our developers we can get a good insight into what they did in this time. Translating all this data within the limits of the context that analytics can give us is a challenge.

And, to add just one more degree of difficulty, we have to consolidate the findings of both the focus groups and the analytics! In places they generally support each other, but in a few cases they differ too and we need to make a call on what the answer might be. We also have to consider any new findings alongside our earlier work with our Oxford consultative group. And, with another pilot phase coming soon, we also need to reflect on what we’ve learned about gathering feedback in this way to ensure we get the most out of it.

With all this going on on a granular level, the good news is that – anecdotally at least – we had lots of thumbs up. thumbs-up-sign

Recognise someone/somewhere?

If you’ve visited our homepage at www.oxplore.org, one of the first things you will have noticed is our imagery. You can’t fail to miss it – it flies in!

If you are an Oxford local or know much about the city, you might recognise familiar objects, places or faces. Each of the headline images for our big questions has a subtle link to the city and University that Oxplore calls home.

Some of these are iconic. For ‘Does a god exist?’ we’ve used the famous domed roof of the Radcliffe Camera. In ‘Do aliens exist?’ we’ve used the striking new Blavatnik School of Government building (which does look a bit out of this world). The Mini Cooper for the ‘Should you have to be British to live in Britain?’ question is similarly iconic – and manufactured at the Mini Plant in Oxford.

Not all of our images are so easily recognisable, but we appreciate the link nonetheless. For the ‘Can war be a good thing?’ question for example, the war grave might look like one of the thousands across the world, but it is in fact from Botley Cemetery. Those buried there were treated at the University’s Examination Schools which were requisitioned as a hospital. And, the people we’ve included are all current or former Oxford students – made into robots, super heroes and more.

Pooling our ideas for these images and for the future content we’re working on at the moment has been one of the team’s favourite tasks. We feel we’re bringing a new angle to some of Oxford’s heritage as well as bringing some of the city’s hidden gems to the fore.

Our first Oxplore Pilot takes off

The team are very much embroiled in our North East pilot activity this month. The purpose of this pilot is to understand how users interact with the site content and concept in the ‘wild’ of the web. Our concept is the overarching Big Questions which we are hanging so much of our identity and content around. Our content is the approximately 225 individual articles, videos, quizzes, lists and more included in our first 15 questions.

Since our return from the school workshops we delivered earlier this month, we have been driving users in the North East to the site using social media campaigns. We can see a good amount of detail on how they are using the site with Google Analytics, and once the pilot period is over we can delve into that glorious data to draw some conclusions on what we should continue, tweak or stop doing.

Next week, the whole team will also be back in the North East for focus groups with 6 schools. We’ll be asking the young people from Years 7 to 12 to give us their honest opinions on everything from the types of content they want to see to the ‘best’ big questions. We’ve worked hard to make the focus groups interactive and enjoyable for the groups too – and we’re bringing snacks!

We’re also attending the Oxford & Cambridge Student Conference in Newcastle next Tuesday. There, we can hopefully spread the word further and allow users to demo the site as well as entering our ‘Big Question’ competition.

If you’re there – we’re the ones in the dark blue Oxplore hoodies…

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