Using acquaintances as research participants is a fairly common resource, especially in small settings that don’t have a budget for research.
However, it is also a practice that can do more harm than good for our product.
Our contacts are not bias free
In the first place, involving acquaintances means asking about our product or project to someone who will likely not be able to be completely honest about their experience. The history of design is full with products that are wildly successful with family and friends, and then crash once they are launched on the market.
The reason is simple: it is very difficult for someone who has some connection with the person in charge of the product (and also with the researcher) to be able to provide unbiased feedback: more likely, everything you see will seem great and a perfect match with your needs.
In some cases, they might even get to know the product beforehand or are part of the company that created it. Can you imagine employees providing negative feedback about a product of their company? It’s never going to happen, or at least it’s never going to happen as much as it should.
We must also keep in mind who our contacts are. Are they potential or actual users of our product? Or are we ok with anyone who can give us an opinion, no matter if they don’t know what the product is about or might not even use it? In the latter case, we would be making a serious mistake that could lead us to make the wrong decisions.
Experts VS real users
When we talk about professional contacts, things get even more complicated. In Linkedin, for example, we could be connected with potential users who do not necessarily have a very close relationship with us.
However, as researchers, many of our contacts will also be professionals related to the world of UX. In the same way that we do not want to involve users who are not among the potential target of our product, we should not do it with experts either. The way in which they see and experience our product is far from how the end-user. Unless our research is specifically aimed at professionals, of course.
A few exceptions
So, When can we invite people close to us to take part in our research? We believe that on very few occasions and very carefully.
For example, if we are researching the attitude of the general population on a certain topic, we might send the link to our survey to our contacts as well. However, considering that peer groups are often much more homogeneous in belief than the general population, this could also bias the results.
Lastly, usability problems are less likely to suffer from be biased by being close with the researcher (in the end, if I’m not able to use an interface, I’m not going to suddenly learn how to do it because I know the researcher)
Doing research the right way is essential, as the findings have a huge impact on the products and the users themselves.
In a few words
The quality of the participants is one of the keys that allow us to achieve the success of the research and, at the same time, one of the aspects that researchers should be more careful about. Fortunately, we have more safer ways to find quality participants for our research than involving our friends and family.