How To Build (And Manage) Your Own Research Panel

Recruiters are useful, but also expensive; roll your own panel and save thousands of dollars every month!

· UX Research,Recruiting

Although professional recruiting firms can be excellent partners, it isn't always affordable or practical to use them for every research study - and there are good reasons to cultivate your own panel. Doing so takes about 2-3 hours to setup, and about 30 minutes/week to "feed and maintain."

If you spend, on average, $150-$200 recruiting each participant in your existing research studies, this process can save you up to $2000 for every study you run.

Down at the bottom of this post is a tool you can use to collect, manage and track your own participant pool.

Finding participants is always one of the hardest parts of performing good research

When we work with clients to understand an audience, we're often asked to turn around and produce results in a fairly short period of time - sometimes as little as a week.

This is not a problem with a research engagement that's ongoing, and has reached a certain self-sustaining cadence. But starting from a standstill, and aside from the pressure of producing and vetting a good test plan and script, it's nearly impossible to recruit a good sample of participants in fewer than 3-4 weeks.

And yet - it's hard to prove the value of research when you can't perform it well, and quickly. Many companies are still only beginning to understand the value of customer-centric research in their Digital Transformation, and for a growing UX Research department (even if you're just one person) it can be very useful to prove your value early, and often, and quickly.

What makes for a "good" research participant?

Opinions vary, but a few attributes are key:

  • Include people who are likely users, recommenders, and even resellers of your product or service. 
  • Include people who don't "look like" your customers - shy away from using marketing demographic criteria (which tend to introduce a confirmation bias into your research)
  • Particularly for empathy testing, ethnography or observational testing, recruit people who can carry on a conversation. Yes, good facilitators can wait out a long, uncomfortable silence, but try to avoid the conditions that produce those silences in the first place.
  • Stay away from serial participants - people who've participated in a study with you within the last 3 months, or more than 4-6 studies in the past year.

Look within

So - where do you get good research participants? Simple: your customers. This includes people who have:

  • Used, purchased or recommended your products and services
  • Tried your products and services (but picked something else)
  • Requested information from you in the past

If this looks like a list of folks who might be on your email or direct mail lists, you're absolutely right. You've already spent time and money recruiting them to be customers - you might as well spend a few more minutes turning them into helpful participants in your effort to improve your offerings.

For these customers, you can start by adding them directly to the tool you're going to use (see the end of this post for an example you can copy and use right way). Make sure they haven't opted out of email communications from your company first. If they have, just leave them be, you'll have other opportunities to recruit them into a research study.

What if you don't have any customers (yet)?

You'd think this would be a problem, but it's actually a fairly fantastic opportunity. Since you're probably already searching through message boards, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for people who might be potential customers.

While you're in the process of building out a list of their challenges and questions that you can use to drive your product development, you also have an opportunity to ask these folks to help you craft your product/service offering.

Just don't be spammy about it. Simply say,

"Hey [name], you asked about [question] on [website], and I'm working on developing a product/service that will fix that. If you're interested, I'd really like some input from you on what I'm working on."

And then include a link to a form where that person can add their contact information (there's a form built into the tool we provided - again, see the end of this post.)

Not all customer are great participants

Though it's tempting to just pour through your customer lists for potential recruits, a word of caution is order: customer who rate your products and services very highly or lowly are likely going to bring strong feelings to the research environment.

While that's not always a bad thing, keeping an eye on whether your participants have pre-determined opinions (good or bad) is essential if you want to ensure useful feedback, particularly on new offerings.

And there's another important reason to keep especially enthusiastic customers away from your research: you'll likely want to engage them as brand ambassadors, and doing so muddies the research waters; as soon as a customer has a stake in your business' success, they're likely to shape their feedback (unconsciously, and even in a way they feel is "helpful", but it's still biased.)

Here, we built something for you

We put together a basic AirTable tool that lets you manage a participant panel, including the ability to create and manage Research events and individual Research Sessions. Keeping your participants organized this way not only lets you manage your panel in just a few minutes each week, it also forms the basis of a toolset that will let you build deep-research tools that let you compare data across many studies.

Go ahead and “Copy Base”, and use this lightweight tool to manage your own Research Panel.