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Fresh Voices: Make Your Participants Better

As research becomes more sophisticated, often we are asking more of our participants. Activities become more involved as we attempt to get deeper into consumers’ lives and minds. It's no wonder that sometimes participants struggle to do what we’re asking.

Make It Better


Editor’s Note: In the second of our “Fresh Voices” series we go back once more to the UK (which seems to have a higher than normal percentage of young rising stars in MR) with the introduction of Riki Neill of Face. Riki shares some true confessions as well as an argument for why using experienced respondents in some types of research may actually be better than the prevailing practice of trying to recruit respondents that have not previously engaged in research (a losing battle to begin with I think). It’s a provocative post and I hope you’ll join me in welcoming Riki to the industry conversation!


By Riki Neill

I’m told that magazine articles that contain confessions get read a lot, so let’s start with a couple of research confessions.  First one – I have called participants ‘stupid’.

Be honest, if you’re a researcher you’ve done it too – we all know that sense of frustration when people just don’t understand what you want from them. And it’s not just researchers. In the dark surroundings of viewing facilities and in hushed conversations in co-creation workshops clients have been overheard surreptitiously whispering, “They just don’t get it do they?”

Now for the second confession.  Sometimes experienced participants are better.

Bear with me on this.  In most cases having someone find their way into your research who is what we call “a professional respondent” is a serious recruitment error. On occasion, however, you may find these people can articulate what everyone else is thinking and have a better insight into their own inner thoughts.

Ok, enough confessions – why am I telling you all this?

As research becomes more sophisticated, often we are asking more of our participants. Activities become more involved as we attempt to get deeper into consumers’ lives and minds. With these more complex methods, surely its no wonder that sometimes participants struggle to do what we’re asking – and those who have done it before are better at it.

Take ethnography influenced methods; diary studies, mobile self-report. You often end up with people who just don’t understand what you’re asking of them. Even if you provide examples, brief them, use metaphors, provide checkups, you can find yourself wishing your participants had understood you better.

So should we use repeat participants? The problem with repeat participants is they often have an agenda, whether that’s to do “armchair marketing”, please the researcher or simply to have a bit of an argument; so using these professional respondents is unlikely to be a viable approach.

But there is value in having people who are practiced in relating their own behaviour. So what about training new participants? With Face’s approach to self-ethnography we start with fresh participants, but then ask them to record their thoughts and lives for a few days. We then provide feedback to help them understand the focus and level of description we need. As a result we get much better data – detailed and surprisingly honest and candid. Effectively, they’ve learnt to be better at talking about themselves. As with any methodological approach this is not appropriate for every project, but used judiciously it can get you better detail and depth.

This is nothing new; philosophers have been teaching themselves methods of introspection for centuries and cognitive therapy can involve patients recording experiences then examining them to move past biases in their perceptions. Why shouldn’t we consider working with our participants to make them better aware of their thoughts, actions and experiences so they can report them more accurately to us?

And it shouldn’t stop there. We should always be aware that there is a level of error in self-report; through training we can reduce certain aspects of this, but with technology we gain another level of reference. Researchers can combine this self-reporting with measured quantitative data, drawn from sources such as mobile phones. This will allow us to compare participants’ perceived internal states and actions with their environmental and physical states, leading to a richer, more accurate picture of their lives.

It’s an exciting prospect, but to stick to my introduction, I’ll finish with a confession. I don’t like magazines with confession-based articles.  m ,m,

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4 responses to “Fresh Voices: Make Your Participants Better

  1. If the issue is that respondents don’t understand what we want from them, is the onus not on us as researcher to make our approach easier for respondents to understand? Can we not seek to simplify the process, question language,research jargon, etc, rather than seek to recruit professional respondents? If we approach things from the view point of the respondent, and communicate in the language of the everyday man/woman, then as an industry, we begin to take responsibility for managing our assets (respondents) in a more efficient manner and hopefully enjoy a more sustainable relationship with us respondents.

  2. Hi Wale, I totally agree that the right language, approach and tools such as using metaphor to help participants understand what we want and examples is important. Also I would agree, as I set out above professional respondents aren’t a good solution – they start to ‘play’ at research.

    But in my experience in certain approaches what we’re asking for does require a level of ‘skill’ or simply being comfortable with doing something. Peer-to-peer is a great example, regular check-ins and feedback enhance participant’s ability and confidence. That isn’t the same as professional respondents, these aren’t people who do research for the money or as something to do, we’re simply helping them understand what we are looking for and how to get it. With some methods this isn’t appropriate, focus groups being an obvious example – but as MR develops new methods which are more collaborative and complex I think ‘training periods’ should be considered if they don’t negatively affect the quality of the output.

  3. I like your idea, but it strikes me as something you’d want to be very careful with. It would be easy to (unintentionally) bias participants to report certain types of behaviours or impressions more than others, or differently than others, simply by virtue of the instructions you give or the examples you use in your feedback.
    Absolutely it’s better to have richer, more well thought out responses from your participants, so long as the feedback and training you give them doesn’t change what they report (i.e. you want them to give you more & better responses, not different responses).

  4. Hi Rob,

    Totally agree with you – it is something to be used with care. One of the ways we’ve gone about avoiding bias is wherever possible using training that doesn’t focus on the actual topic of the research – for example training for a project around kitchen utensil usage through a training exercise on clothing habits. You learn the good ‘feedback style’ which can be applied to the specific topic.

    I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts!

Join the conversation


Riki Neill

Innovation Director, Antedote