Considering your research participants

Giving participants the best possible research experience

An article by Konrad Black 10-09-2018

Participants are not just research cattle, they’re people and it’s important to treat them as such. Ensuring your participants have a positive experience during research is, I think, as important as the actual insight you hope to gain from them.


Anyone who works to a user design philosophy knows that incorporating people and their needs at the heart of any design is key. During this research, we concern ourselves with answering things like who the audiences will be, how we’ll find and recruit them, what questions we’ll need to ask, how best to frame the questions and then how best to analyse and communicate the findings to the organisation to make best use of them.

This is all good stuff and critical to ensuring discovery results are as fruitful and insightful as can be. But how much time do you actually spend planning out the experience your research participants will have with you?

Generally we’re so eager to get to the insight that we can lose sight of the person sitting in front of us. I’ve heard of people who may be very good at empathising with someone in the moment but to only lack the simple courtesy of offering cup of tea or water to their participant. They’re simply more interested in getting to the insight and lose sight of the actual person in front of them.

With this in mind, we’ve created a few simple tips to ensure the next experience your research participants have with you will be a positive one, even if the topic under discussion is challenging.

Recruitment for the session

Avoid those awkward questions before or even during the session itself by following some basic principles:

  • Planning ahead: Give participants advanced warning with dates, times and venues to allow them to arrange calendars, maybe even childcare or transportation. Two to three weeks is best. It’s also really important not to swap dates around once recruitment is underway.
  • Clarify the nature of research: Be clear about what the form of research will be, will it be a face to face private conversation or group setting? Will it be recorded or will others be watching in another room? You may want to clarify any possible topics for discussion (unless it’s key to withhold it until the day). Clarifying this up front ensures it’s not a surprise on the day and gives participants the opportunity to decline to take part if they’re unsure
  • Location, location, location: Be as detailed about the location of the session as you can. Provide the full address, link to a google map, maybe even pictures of the building/venue itself. Wherever possible provide clear travel instructions, including nearby car parking, tube/train/bus stops and directions from nearby landmarks. Give instructions on how to access the building/room, whether toilet facilities are on hand or not.
  • Travel costs / expenses: Clarify whether travel costs/expenses are included or not, and if so, how should the participant then claim for this travel (e.g. emailing receipts to the recruiter).
  • Accessibility: Inform participants of wheelchair ramps, lifts, where there is stair only access and whether the building is equipped with disabled toilets or not.
  • Timings: List the timings for the session/day and be clear that they will be adhered to. This not only makes it clear to participants when the session starts and finishes but also reassures them that you won’t let the session overrun - important if they need to collect the kids afterwards, for example.
  • Incentives: Clarify whether if incentives will be issued and if so, clarify the amount and form the incentive will take (e.g. online voucher, cash etc). Stipulate clearly that incentives will only be issued for participating in the research session itself, so if the participant fails to show or doesn’t actually contribute, they shouldn’t expect to receive the incentive. In addition, clarify whether incentives will be issued after the session by the researcher or maybe within 24hrs by the recruitment agency.
  • Contacts: Provide participants with the name, job role, email and ideally, phone number of both the recruiter AND lead researcher. This will ensure participants know who to contact on the day if they’re late or can’t attend. The basic details of the researcher has the added benefit of reassuring the participant of who they’ll be speaking with. Depending on the topic under discussion, some participants may not wish to speak with a male researcher, for example.
  • What to expect on arrival: Ensure that participants know what’s going to happen on arrival at the venue. Will they need to sign in at reception? Does reception know to expect participants throughout the day and know what to do with them? Will they need to be escorted through the building? Will someone on the research team come down to meet them?

During the session

On the day you might find yourself extremely busy, trying to get all the last minute prep done and the room setup correctly. Here’s a reminder of the obvious little things that make all the difference to participants on arrival:

  • Keep colleagues in the loop: Ensure your colleagues are aware research is ongoing on, which rooms will be used and timings of sessions throughout the day. If participants have particular needs, ask colleagues to understand these needs and offer their support
  • Meeting and greeting: Whether you or a colleague will be meeting and greeting participants on arrival, ensure you/they always use a smile. It might sound obvious but taking part in something you may never have done before can be extremely daunting. Be polite, courteous and offer a warm and friendly handshake. Welcome them to the venue and thank them for taking the time to participate, but be careful not to say they’re here for ‘testing’ as it can heighten anxiety. Instead, use terms such as ‘research session’ etc.
  • Make them feel comfortable: Ensure there's a enough space for all participants to sit down and be comfortable whilst waiting for their session to start. Provide a clear and safe space for people to place their bags and coats. Give participants enough time to get settled before starting - you don’t want them to feel rushed
  • Room setup: Ensure you have water available and don’t forget tissues; extremely important when exploring a particularly emotional and sensitive topic. Ensure the room is appropriately lit. Too dark or too bright can make the setting for people with a visual impairment uncomfortable or hard to see if conducting a usability test
  • Equipment: If usability testing, provide the option of a mouse when testing on a laptop just incase they aren’t familiar with using a trackpad. If using their own mobile phone, provide participants with both time and privacy to get setup including connecting to the office wifi (so they don’t use their own data allowance) and close any browser windows which may contain private data.
  • Introduction to the session: Prior to the actual research itself, it’s vital the lead researcher provide a detailed introduction. This should reiterate everything that was highlighted during the recruitment, such as timings, what type of session it will be, possible topics for discussion, incentives etc. This will ensure there has been no misunderstanding during recruitment and sets the tone for the session ahead, so participants know clearly where they stand and what to expect, placing them at greater ease
  • Recordings: Reiterate to participants whether the session will be recorded or observed or not. Tell the participant if recordings will be used in marketing or published in the public domain. It’s also of vital (and legal) importance that you clearly state this intent and have explicit signed consent for both making and storing the recording
  • Timings: Always stick to your agreed time slot, even if you don’t manage to capture everything you had hoped for. Participants may have somewhere important to go afterwards, or they may have pre arranged travel arrangements.

After the session

When closing the session, it’s very important to let people know what will happen next. Don’t just let participants feel like they’ve been left on their own once you’ve got the insight you needed:

  • Say thank you: Again, it might seem obvious but it’s really important to thank participants for their time, even if they’ve been incentivised to attend. Without their help we simply couldn’t get the insight we need to make informed design decisions and recommendations.
  • Additional help: Depending on the topic being discussed, it may be appropriate to offer upset or vulnerable participants help leaflets from well known and trusted organisations/charities. We’ve encountered participants that have reached out for help during a session. Fortunately, we had a variety of leaflets that were suitable for them to take away and seek help from. If any of your clients offer these types of support services (like many of Edo’s do), then periodically ask for the latest help guides/leaflets to be able to offer should you need to.
  • Next steps: Be clear about what will happen next. Will they receive a cash incentive immediately or will a voucher will be emailed out within 24hrs? Reiterate how the recordings will be used, whether or not they’ll be contacted again by the person who recruited them (this ideally should happen). It all helps to reassure participants and gives them a chance to clarify any questions they might have.
  • Walk participants out: Continue the personal experience by walking participants out, showing them the way to the exit or even the toilet. Don’t rush them or shove them out now you’ve got what you needed from the session. Instead be polite, friendly, thanking them again for taking the time to visit. Doing so means they’ll be much more likely to want to participate again in future (if required) or recommend others to take part, which can be especially helpful if official recruitment has proven to be difficult.
  • Getting home: If it’s dark outside or the weather is particularly bad weather or you’ve had an elderly or particularly vulnerable participant, why not offer to book a taxi for them and let them wait comfortably whilst it arrives. Or offer to have someone walk them to their car to ensure they get there safely.

Leading research sessions is not just listening, capturing and analysing the insight. There’s a whole bunch of simple yet very important considerations that need to be carefully thought through if the experience of research is to be a good one. Remember, participants are not just research cattle to be miked for their insight. They’re normal everyday people who deserve respect and it’s important to treat them as such.

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