Improve the research participant experience

What makes taking part in research difficult, and how we can improve it to run higher quality studies.

User researchers often run studies at anti-social times. Getting the right kind of participants might require running studies in the evening or weekend, to ensure that they are speaking to the right kind of person. Sometimes the participant doesn’t turn up to a session, which is particularly frustrating last thing on a Sunday evening. 

However this isn’t always the participants fault. I’ve had sessions where participants can’t find the building entrance, couldn’t find parking or get stuck in reception without us knowing they have arrived. There’s even a (potential apocryphal) tale at one of my old employers about the participant being mistaken for an executive, and taken to the board room to join a very important meeting. These are all fixable problems.

In this article, we’ll look at why we should focus on the participant experience, what issues participants encounter, and how to fix them, including sharing a free template to help. This will allow research teams to run more reliable research studies.

What makes taking part in research difficult?

It’s easy for researchers to underestimate how scary taking part in research is. It requires members of the public to go into very expensive looking buildings, often totally removed from their normal everyday life and context. It can require sitting in front of a one way mirror, which participants will only have seen before during police interrogations on TV. 

I also see confusion about methods cause concern from participants, when they were unaware that the session was going to be a one-to-one interview with a researcher, and they’d assumed it was a focus group. The participant had perhaps anticipated that they could hide at the back and keep quiet, and suddenly become worried that they won’t be able to contribute enough and will upset us.

All of this is very intimidating, and can change how participants act. But intimidation is not the only barrier for participants – there are also logistical challenges.

The participant experience has been a focus of previous research work. In 2018,  Ben Garvey-Cubbon and Nic Price interviewed research participants about their experience taking part in research. From this, they learned people’s concerns, and the challenges that prevent people taking part in research, including poor parking, ill-health or sessions only being available in working hours. These are all problems that researchers can help address, when they are aware they exist. 

From my own experience as a researcher, I also see other challenges research participants face – including not knowing where the building is, being unable to find the entrance, being unsure whether we can accomodate access requirements, and being unable to find child-care and not knowing if it’s ok to bring children to the session.

We can fix these problems – and fixing them will improve the quality of our research findings.

Why bother making participation easier?

Running research studies is expensive. Participants have to be sourced, and paid, which has a cost. There are also staff costs – collaborative research often involves getting the whole product team together to watch sessions, and if that session becomes wasted it gets very expensive for the company. It’s important to do everything possible to make the session run smoothly to avoid wasting money. 

Even when the participant turns up, the session can either go well or poorly based on the rapport and comfort of the participant. If the participant has had a difficult time getting to the session, or has been treated rudely at reception, they will be less comfortable and less inclined to participate fully. This will impact the flow of the session, and potentially can lead to less helpful interview responses and failing to uncover insights that would have emerged from a more comfortable interaction with the participant.

Fixing these problems will help ensure that sessions run promptly, which will save money and help uncover more data, increasing the quality of information available to inform product decisions.

How to make a better experience for participants

Tell participants what they will be doing in advance

Giving participants the details of what they will be doing in the study will give them time to mentally prepare, and reduce anxiety.

This can include both details of the study (“this will be a one to one interview, lasting sixty minutes”), and the logistics required for turning up (“the session is in this building, go into the reception area and ask for Bob”). Thinking through the participant’s journey will help anticipate what issues participants will encounter – knowing what they need to bring, finding a parking space, recognising the building, knowing who to ask for at reception. The right information can then be given to participants to ensure that these issues don’t disrupt the study.

Creating the opportunity for participants to ask questions before the study has the additional benefit of making research more inclusive. Participants with access requirements will be able to validate that they will be able to attend and physically access the building, rather than opting out due to being unsure.

Brief colleagues on how to treat participants

Walking into a big expensive office building can be intimidating. Reception staff can sometimes assume that people visiting businesses are ‘business people’ and have had similar interactions before, such as knowing exactly who they are seeing and why. Members of the public attending research might not have all of the appropriate information to be able to handle these conversations, and for some participants this may be their first time coming to an office environment.

To make it easier for participants, speak to the reception or security staff before hand, so they know to expect the participants, and what to do when the participant arrives. The ideal participant experience is that they tell the receptionist who they are, and then everything is handled from there – the participant is told where to wait, how long they will be waiting and the researcher is informed that someone is waiting for them. Briefing the front desk will help  make this happen.

You should also consider briefing colleagues who might encounter participants elsewhere during their visit to the building. Perhaps most importantly, talk to research observers about how they should handle bumping into the participant. If the participant goes to the loo, and bumps into someone who reveals they have just been watching them, their behaviour may be radically difficult by the time they come back!

Reassure participants at the start of the session

During the session, the introduction can set the tone for how the rest of the session goes. Offering a soft drink will give participants the time to mentally adjust to the space and the researcher.

The preamble at the start of the session should continue to reassure participants, using messages such as:

  • “We are testing the software, not you. There are no wrong answers today.” 
  • “If things do seem confusing or difficult, that’s useful – tell us so we can tell the people making it that they need to make changes”
  • “You can take a break, or stop, at any time”

Combined with broad, easy questions to start the session, this will help put participants at ease and build a rapport before digging into more difficult subjects. 

Running better studies

Making sessions less scary for participants will lead to more impactful studies. Less expensive session time will be lost waiting for lost or stuck participants. Participants will be more at ease and sessions will flow better, revealing potentially hidden information. 

This all increases the quality of research findings, and reduces the time it will take to arrive there.

A free template for information to give participants is available on the Building User Research Teams website (the ‘Visitor Information Form’). The book also goes into more detail about how to set up a team reading to run impactful and efficient studies that inform product decisions.

If you have tips on how to improve the participant experience, I’d love to hear them below.

150 150 Steve Bromley

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