Designing research

13th April 2018

The People for Research team and Mike Dunn, UX, user research and service design consultant at Mace & Menter, have teamed up to write a new co-blog about the importance of properly planning user research.

There’s no one perfect way to do user research. Every method has its pros and cons. The key is to design the research process. Just like anything else you might design (a website, a gadget, or a garden) it’s about:

Defining the problem(s) you want to solve

Coming up with a solution that works within the constraints of time and budget

designing research

Getting the process right

As part of my previous team, I worked with purpose-led organisations such as Citizens Advice, Bristol Energy and the British Heart Foundation to help them use technology more effectively and focus on people. We worked hard to design the research process right, often around tight budgets. We design it around what we already know, what we need to find out, and what the budget allows.

Working with our clients to decide our hypotheses (and the right questions to ask) is the first step of this. Next, we need to choose our methods. Interviews, contextual inquiry, surveys, co-creation workshops, and desk research are all options. No one is perfect, and a mixture is best. But the reality of research is that lots comes down to what those key constraints of time and budget allow.

From there it’s all about ‘triangulation’. Some research methods (like surveys) give you lots of data without much detail. Others (like interviews) let you get under the skin of a certain topic, but with a smaller sample. However, if similar patterns start to emerge across methods, you know you’re onto something.

designing research

Finding the right participants

With the right process planned, it’s time to recruit participants. Our clients are often keen to recruit participants themselves. They might have a pool of engaged supporters, customers, or volunteers they want to draw from, but participants recruited in-house tend to be very ‘warm’ to the organisation. Because they’re already engaged with it, they’re very aware of – and usually support – its goals. This means they’re often not representative of the rest of the population. Participants recruited by an external agency like People for Research tend to have a more neutral view of the organisation, if they have one at all.

I also find that very warm participants have often already participated in research sessions or customer panels for the organisation. It means they’ve often told their story many times before. In contrast, ‘cold’ participants may not have spoken about this topic to anyone, but close family or friends, at all. While this means it can take longer for a cold participant to open up, it also makes for more ‘unfiltered’ emotional insights when they do.

The user recruiter’s point of view

Like any other part of designing the research process, there is not just one way to approach recruitment; using a specialist user recruitment agency like People for Research is just one option. An external recruiter can help make sure your research is user-centred. This means considering what is best for the person taking part in research to ensure they are at ease and anyone can adopt the process we follow to try and recruit relevant participants.

One of the keys to this is making sure you are transparent with the person about what is going to happen during the research session and giving them chance to ask questions before asking them to commit. Using softer language, for example saying ‘research session’ instead of ‘app testing’, can help the person feel more relaxed in the lead up to a research session.

As Mike mentions above, if the client recruit directly from a customer base it may be hard to untangle the experience from the person’s views of the brand and get unbiased feedback. People for Research are external to this process which means we can keep the client name confidential and discuss the person’s experience of a process in isolation from the brand. We also avoid using technical terminology or jargon.

Perhaps the most important benefit a proper recruiter can offer, in contrast to a client recruiting themselves, is that we will proactively go out looking for the ‘right’ people. Anyone who is screened and does not meet the relevant criteria will be screened out in a professional way, and we will continue on the recruitment process. As a specialist recruiter we have a range of methods we use to recruit and can use a method appropriate to the audience and the research project.

designing research

Doing it right on the day

I’m involved with the Participant Needs research project, and from Ben and Nic’s previous work we know participants’ experiences begin long before the day of the research.

On the day we always do our best to make participants feel relaxed and (assuming they’ve travelled to us) welcome. It can be daunting to turn up at a strange office in a strange part of town, so I’ve been working to improve this.

Top tip: no matter what your instructions say, on arrival participants could ask for your company’s name, your client’s name, your recruitment agency’s name, your name, your recruiter’s name, or just say they’re here for ‘research’. Tell all the security desk and reception staff you can find to expect this, and give them your phone number.

Like Dan Goodwin from fffunction, when we do research for charities it often involves pretty serious subjects. His guide to doing user research on sensitive subjects is well worth a read. People are often surprised to hear that research into sensitive subjects usually doesn’t mean lots of tears and raw emotion. If someone is willing to take part in user research on a subject like this they’re at a stage where they feel able to do so. The main thing is making sure they’re aware well in advance that this will be a topic of discussion so it’s not a nasty surprise, and assuring them they don’t have to discuss anything they don’t want to.

In summary

1. Use your experience as a designer to design the research experience.
2. Aim to use more than one research method and then triangulate.
3. Make time to plan how you will recruit.
4. If your client insists on recruiting their own participants, make sure you have time to employ a backup plan if they struggle to find relevant people.
5. Use a professional recruiter such as People for Research if running qualitative recruitment.
6. Consider the arrangements for the day of research – have you provided clear instructions?
7. Be transparent with participants about what to expect in the session.

If you’d like to chat about what’s discussed on this co-blog or would like to explore a research project of your own, get in touch with Mike on Twitter.



If you would like to find out more about our in-house participant recruitment service for user testing or market research get in touch on 0117 921 0008 or

At People for Research, we recruit participants for UX and usability testing and market research. We work with award winning UX agencies across the UK and partner up with a number of end clients who are leading the way with in-house user experience and insight.