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Are your UX research efforts a complete waste of time?

By: Alyce Lythall
Date: July, 2015
File under: Articles

When it comes to user experience research, a critical but often overlooked component is the representative users themselves. Research participants, as we like to call them, have the ability to really make or break your research project. Recruit the wrong participants, and you risk losing valuable time, missing relevant insights and wasting money.

In our many years of experience, we have learned how to ensure you get the right participants for the project, so we thought we would share a few of our secrets with you.

Know who your users are

We’ve written before about the importance of knowing your users. Understanding basic demographic, socio-economic and attitudinal facts about them can help in the recruitment process. It is really difficult to recruit from a persona that only specifies non-tangible aspects of the user; we need to ask questions that can narrow down a prospective panel of thousands of unknown people to a small number of appropriate participants quickly and easily. It is also important to have confidence in these facts; if they haven’t been validated with research, we again run the risk of recruiting the wrong user, which can severely limit the usefulness of your research project.

Useful breakdowns and facts that will go a long way in finding the right types of participants include age range, gender, location (metro or regional), income and employment, family status, technical knowledge, device usage, product ownership/registration and attitudes towards the product/service you are researching.

Understand the best way to find them and be flexible

For a lot of our projects, we rely on recruitment agencies and panels to locate participants. For projects requiring general participants, this can be a very effective approach. At other times, participants can be more difficult to find. Business execs, CFOs and CEOs are not the type of people who tend to be on recruitment panels. Likewise, recent migrants are not likely to be on recruitment panels. Niche product users are not likely to be on recruitment panels. The success of a recruitment panel comes down to the project specific criteria and the incidence rate of the criteria. If the incidence rate is 1 in 5 people, the easier they are to find and the more likely they are to be on a panel. If it’s 1 in 1000, obviously there will be more issues.

When trying to locate a more difficult user group, we employ a variety of methods. We have established relationships with charities and social workers to try and find disadvantaged youth; we have attended business networking events to make inroads with business owners and managers; we have used social media to leverage a strong social media presence, and we have put up flyers on notice boards at universities to try and find foreign students. If getting a list of customers is a possibility this opens up a great many doors we would otherwise have been unable to open.
Often, these more innovative approaches to recruitment can take a little longer than expected to complete. But we have always found the extra time is worthwhile to ensure the integrity and validity of the research. When evaluating your project brief or RFQ, we will look at the incidence rate of your target sample, and make recommendations on the most appropriate approach to help improve the quality of your research outcomes.

Ask the right questions

Unfortunately, there are some people who are serial research subjects, signed up to multiple panels and trying to do as much research as they possibly can. In general, we like to ensure participants haven’t participated in research in the past six months, to avoid any potential bias. Asking this question is an oft-forgotten, but very important part of any recruitment spec.

If you don’t want your participant to come to the research session with any preconceived notions or bias towards the research subject, we would also suggest you include a few ‘red herring’ questions in your recruitment process to throw people off your trail. This can often be as simple as using multiple choice questions, with plenty of extra options to choose from, or an attitudinal rating scale that refers to both extreme positive and negative reactions. This way, it is harder for participants to work out the product or service you are undertaking research on.

We prefer to write very comprehensive recruitment specs, or scripts, to ensure each potential participant is asked the same set of questions, eliminating any bias. This gives us confidence that regardless of who is actually undertaking the recruitment, be it us or an agency, the subsequent participants will be consistently recruited and exposed to the same pre-emptive information, just another way we go above and beyond to ensure the integrity of our research.

The right incentive to participate never hurts

We get that sometimes budgets can be tight, and offering a cash incentive can be tricky (plus not everyone can accept a cash incentive as part of their job). Creative solutions to incentives can be just as useful, and will definitely pique interest and promote participation in your study. Think outside of the box for incentives that are appropriate for your user group, this could be product bonuses or reimbursements, account credits, donations to a charity, a free meal, gift vouchers or even a code for free shipping!

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