Researching with users is a mandatory step for all businesses that strive for building successful products and services that address people’s real needs. That is why we would like to talk about the importance of choosing the right participants in our user research projects.
There is no way of putting the users at the center of the design process without researching with them. In fact, we are not our users and we need first-hand information to understand what they want, what they think and what problems they are facing.
Finding the right users for our research is a task that is often seen as a challenge. Not any person would fit our research: we need to find real users
What does real users mean?
Researching with real users does not necessarily mean that you have to find actual users of your product or service. Actually, involving your customers sometimes can be detrimental to your research.
For example, when you are interested in evaluating the usability of an interface that anyone can use. Your customers probably won’t experience any difficulty in using it because they already learned how it works.
First-time users, however, will struggle with most of the usability issues of the interface and that will help you detect and fix them.
Unless you are interested in involving your actual customers in research, the terms real users mean potential users: people that match your ideal or current user profile, that is, someone that can become your client.
Why is it important to involve real users? Can’t I just do research with anyone?
Let’s make one thing clear: unless you are Google, your target user is never anyone.
Your product will likely be used by a group of people with certain characteristics that, even if large, is extremely unlikely to match the entire population.
Even so, it might be tempting to involve anyone in your research because it is simply a lot easier than looking for a specific participant profile. This is something that you must avoid.
Depending on your goals and, consequently, on the user research technique you are using, when you do user research you get different kinds of information from your participants.
When you are performing formative user research, your goal is to gain insights on a certain topic before undertaking a process (generally, a design one). Summative research, on the contrary, is aimed at evaluating the outcomes of the process.
In both cases, you are basically collecting insights on people’s attitude and behavior, that is what they think and what they do.
Whether you are interested in any of the two, involving people that do not match your ideal user profile is counterproductive and can ruin your research.
Attitude and behavior are deeply influenced by who you are and your experience.
Different people have different beliefs and emotions towards things and, based on that, act in very different ways.
For example, if you want to build a new revolutionary customer experience for drivers, you can’t just involve anyone. You need to research with car owners. People who don’t drive won’t give you any valuable feedback because their transportation needs are completely different.
Experience also means knowledge of the domain. If you are investigating a very specific topic that requires some previous knowledge, involving people that lack it won’t provide any useful data.
For example, testing the clients’ area of and online banking website with someone who is not a client of the bank and does not have enough context to understand the products he sees in the interface.
Or testing a sports betting website with someone who does not know the basic terminology of betting.
Your target profile can evolve during the research process.
You might want to start with a broad user profile in order to find out unmet needs and use the information gathered to build a product that covers them.
Later, based on what you had learned during the process, you can evaluate your solution with a more precise target.
Sometimes, at the beginning of a formative research project, you don’t know who your exact target user is. However, you never research just everything. If you are working on a specific topic, you are necessarily focusing on a specific user type.
Defining the right participant
Defining the right participants for your user research is not a complicated task but requires some attention.
The key is to focus only on those characteristics that make someone a real user of my product and to avoid including the irrelevant ones. Superfluous information makes the recruitment of your participants difficult, more expensive and does not add anything to your insights.
What is irrelevant? Basically, all that is not supposed to affect the attitude or the behavior of our participants.
This is something that you might not know beforehand, however, you can still make some assumptions and, if you are in doubt, decide to broaden the target a bit to make sure you are not excluding anyone.
Sometimes, people tend to rely on existing material like user personas to build their participants’ profiles, but…
Personas are not participants' profiles.
Personas are a useful tool for design because they provide the designers with an archetype of their target user they can empathize with during the entire process.
User personas are detailed descriptions of an ideal user from a target group, not of the group itself. They are rich in information, but most of it is superfluous when you need to find participants for your user research.
If you are researching a service for mothers of young children, you don’t need to interview only 35yo women with an 8yo daughter called Mary who likes tennis and dogs. Any mother of young children would work.
Be smart when defining your target participants and avoid overcomplicating things: my potential user is probably already a user of my competitors.
Imagine we are doing research for a luxury hotel chain. What characteristics turns them into a possible client of my hotels?
We can search for people with a specific socioeconomic status, used to travel to certain destinations and looking for special experiences when traveling. Or we can simply decide to involve people who already stayed in one of my competitors’ hotels recently.
Previous behavior, in fact, is a good predictor of future actions and attitudes.
People who purchased a flight ticket online during the past year are good candidates for research for an airline website.
User research with the wrong participants is even worse than no research.
We already said that user research is a powerful tool to take informed decisions regarding our products and services. Without user research, your actions are driven by assumptions, not facts, and assumptions are not always true.
There is just one thing worse than taking decisions based on suppositions: taking decisions based on wrong information. This is what happens when you are not performing research right and especially when you are involving wrong participants in it.
When people’s actions are based on speculations, they might either be aware of that (good) or be convinced that their beliefs are true.
However, user research is so powerful that, as soon as people start doing it and see the facts, they are open to change their minds.
On the contrary, it is far more difficult to convince someone that took decisions based on wrong information obtained during a user research activity.
This is often resulting in a loss of confidence in user research itself, who is seen as unreliable as deciding on the basis of assumptions.