The Hardest Part: Getting the right participant in the room

This week has proved to me that that nothing — nothing — matters as much as having the right participants.

Without the right participants, it all falls apart
If you don’t have participants who are appropriate, you can’t learn what you want to learn because they don’t behave and think the way real users do. You may get data, but what does it mean? Not much.

Who’s the right participant?
The right participant is a person. Not a set of demographics or psychographic data taken from market segementations. It’s easy to lose sight of the idea that the person sitting in the chair using the product you’re testing is a person and not a tool for you to identify design problems – a substitute for you. He or she is a person with a personality, habits, memories, beliefs, attitudes, abilities, intelligence, experience, and relationships. You want the person to bring those things with them (along with their computer glasses). That’s the stuff of mental models. That’s what makes the sessions interesting and unpredictable.

How do you know?
You should be able to visualize who participant-person will be by talking about the kinds of things you want them to do in the session. Here’s an example from a study I’m working on right now. We want


Someone who travels at least a few times a year and stays a couple of nights in a hotel on each trip. This person books his own travel because it’s quicker and easier than giving instructions to someone else. He likes to book online because he can see options and amenities that inform his final decisions. This traveler knows where he’s going, how to get there, and what to do on arrival.


There’s a task with a context: booking travel accommodation online. There are motivations: it’s comparatively easy and there’s decision-making information available that isn’t otherwise. There is a level of experience in the task domain: traveling a few times a year and staying in hotels.

Visualizing participants this way is a technique I borrowed from User Interface Engineering.

You can create a screening questionnaire from that description that should get you appropriate participants. And look, there are very few selection criteria embedded in the visualization. We don’t care what the annual household income is, or the education level, or even what the person’s job is. Don’t make this too hard for yourself by collecting data you’re not going to use. (Besides, then you have to protect that personal information, but I’ll talk about that later.)

Now, share your test objectives and your visualization of the participant with your recruiter.


Stay tuned for much more about recruiting, like how to work with a recruiter, where to find the right participants, and lessons that Sandy and I have learned through dozens of recruits.

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