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6 ways to minimize panel fatigue

6 Ways to Minimize Participant Panel Fatigue

A closer look at what panel fatigue is, how to design a study with the participant experience in mind, and tips to maximize study quality.

Creating and managing a user research study comes with great responsibility. There’s research study design, participant management, incentives, and the list goes on. Whether you’re a research team of one or 100, it’s easy to fall victim to burnout while juggling a million things. But as a researcher, it’s important to consider the entire research experience from a participant’s POV. 

Burnout is not an experience that’s exclusive to researchers. Yes, researchers do experience various types of fatigue, like research fatigue and empathy fatigue (more on that later👇). But it’s also important to consider burnout for your participants, AKA panel fatigue.

Panel fatigue is a common type of burnout that can come from various sources, including:

  • Poor UX research study design
  • Repetitive study questions
  • Excessively long panel sessions
  • And more

In this article, you’ll learn about:

  • What is panel fatigue?
  • How to avoid and minimize panel fatigue
  • Related challenges in the participant experience
  • The impact of self-care for researchers on the quality of user insights
  • The responsibility of tools vs. researchers

What is participant panel fatigue?

Panel fatigue (AKA participant fatigue or respondent fatigue) is when UX research participants experience burnout due to excessively long panel sessions, repetitive questions, or other failures in the study design. 

With so many checkboxes on your research study to-do list to keep track of, it can be easy to forget that there’s potential for participant burnout in addition to your own (more on researcher fatigue later).

There are many different ways to define panel fatigue, but here are some ways that others define it.

As defined by SAGE Research Methods, panel fatigue is:

“...when survey participants become tired of the survey task and the quality of the data they provide begins to deteriorate. It occurs when survey participants' attention and motivation drop toward later sections of a questionnaire.” 

Respondent fatigue doesn’t only occur from a decrease in attention and motivation. According to French market research firm Ipsos, panel fatigue can also occur when the topic is disinteresting:

“​During a research project respondents can lose interest or be disinclined to continue. This fatigue can result in invalid responses and generally happens more frequently towards the end of long surveys or those where the topic is not engaging the respondent.”

Why should you care about panel fatigue?

You should care about panel fatigue because the participants’ experience in the research study can affect the quality of the participants’ responses and the insights you gather.

💡More panel fatigue = decreased quality of participant data = low-quality insights. This is called the “fatigue effects.” This is when participant fatigue negatively impacts the results and possible outcomes of a study, so it’s important to design studies that reduce the potential for panel fatigue.

It’s like a domino effect. The more panel fatigue your participants experience, the more likely your data will decrease in quality, resulting in insights that serve little to no value for your research study. 

IRL, panel fatigue is pretty easy to identify. It’s quite similar to how someone would respond to a severely dry and boring conversation. Think back to a time when someone was talking your ear off with a topic that was long-winded, irrelevant, and to put it bluntly—just flat out boring. It’s difficult to engage with a dry conversation, and sometimes the only responses you can muster are: “That’s crazy…”, “yes”, “no”, or “I don’t know.”

It’s the same for research studies. Participants who are bored or tired might start giving those deadpan “I don’t know” responses when they’re feeling fatigued, unmotivated, or disinterested with your questions. There’s not much insight you can get from a research participant who is disinterested or tired from your questions.

Remember, your participants are real people with varying degrees of attention span, knowledge, and motivation. On average, users’ attention spans are only about 8 seconds. While this metric refers to average attention spans with content and marketing, it’s safe to say that people generally have shorter attention spans, whether it’s concerning a TikTok video or a user research study.

Let’s be real, there’s no magic potion to completely avoid panel fatigue, but there are various ways to help you minimize respondents’ boredom and disinterest. Continue reading to learn our tips and tricks to help you keep participants engaged below. 👇

6 steps to avoid or minimize panel fatigue

Let’s get meta. Your role as a researcher is to gather insights, help develop actionable strategies from those insights, maintain a library (research repository) of insights to improve both the user experience and your company’s business objectives, and so much more. That’s a lot to think about, not to mention your own self-care as a UX researcher.

But building research-backed, user-centric experiences isn’t confined to the products and services you ship. In UX research, the participant experience is the user experience— so it’s important to pay attention to the UX of your studies as well.

🎙️ Nicholas Aramouni of Userlytics dives deeper into the topic of Perfecting the UX of UX testing in this episode of the Awkward Silences podcast: 

“As a researcher, one of the primary tools that you have is empathy and putting yourself in someone else's shoes. Especially, again, in a remote sense too, when you're designing your test or designing what you need to be doing to get the insights you want, you need to have your participant in mind.“

Conducting user research while being conscious of creating user-friendly experiences for the participants might seem difficult, but we’ve simplified the process for you in six actionable strategies.

1. Limit the length of your study. 

No one has time to waste, neither you nor your participants. It’s important to be mindful of participants’ time and make sure that your research study doesn’t take an absurd amount of time to complete.

Like we mentioned before, people generally have shorter attention spans (about 8 seconds). If your study requires deep focus and intentional thinking for a longer period of time, it’s more likely that you’ll see increased dropoff rates and decreased participant retention.

There’s no magic number to how long your research study should be. Some research studies require more in-depth participation from respondents, while other studies only focus on surface-level participation.

If your research study requires a significant amount of time, participation, or engagement, try boiling down your long list of questions to a few intentional and impactful ones that truly matter for your research objectives. If your study takes too long, you can also try splitting it up into multiple, shorter sessions.

💡If your research study takes long, proper compensation for your participants’ time can help reduce dropoff rates and minimize panel fatigue. Keep in mind that the incentive type and amount should be proportionate to the length of the study. More on incentives below👇

We suggest taking time to improve your questionnaire and make sure that each question is intentional and meaningful for your research study. We’ll get more into writing research study questions that reduce panel fatigue later in this article.

📕 Need help writing survey or research questions? Here’s How to Write UX Research Interview Questions to Get the Most Insight

2. Incentivize participants. 

You have to compensate your participants for their time, period. Providing the right incentives for your study will help them feel more motivated to engage with your study.

Incentives are essential because they… 

  • Improve response rates
  • Limit no-shows
  • Reduce bias (when used correctly)
  • Attract the right audience
  • Create trust
  • Enforce equity
  • Are simply good (and standard) practice

Compensating your participants with research incentives doesn’t only help attract the right participants to your study, but also helps you collect great data. With motivated, quality participants, you are more likely to gather higher quality insights from their responses. Basically, incentivized participants help reduce panel fatigue that participants would experience if they are not properly compensated or motivated to engage.

What's the right incentive for a 60-minute interview about software engineering? Or for a 15-minute unmoderated test of a shopping app? We created a UX research incentive calculator to answer questions like these. Answer a few simple questions about your next study to get a customized, data-backed incentive recommendation.

🎙️Need help managing participant incentives? Learn more about managing and distributing user research incentives on this episode of Awkward Silences: User Research Incentives with Nick Baum of Tremendous. 

Cash is king, but there are several other ways to incentivize your participants and improve their engagement. Not all participants are motivated by cash, but they do need to find some value in the incentives you provide.

Consider other, non-monetary types of compensation you can offer participants, such as:

  • Company swag
  • Access to beta features
  • Product discounts
  • Lottery-style rewards 

📕 Have a limited research budget? Learn six ways to to incentivize participants on a shoestring budget in this article written by Lizzy Burnam: Why You Should Pay Your Participants

3. Monitor your own burnout and fatigue. 

Perfecting the UX of UX research isn’t just about the participants. It’s also important to monitor researcher fatigue. Researcher fatigue happens when researchers start to experience burnout from doing back-to-back research sessions.

According to former associate director of User Experience at Phreesia, Auldyn Matthews,

“If our brain is like a muscle, research fatigue is simply overworking our capacity to conduct sessions one after another. We need rest between sessions to clear out our working memory and prepare for more users.”

As a researcher, it’s important for you to practice active listening skills, comprehension, and analysis. When you overload your schedule with back-to-back research sessions, it’s easy to fall victim to research fatigue. You’re also human; you only have so much capacity to process in-depth information.

Start being more mindful of researcher fatigue and understand your own capacity to conduct research sessions, especially if you have multiple research projects to juggle. 

Another type of fatigue that researchers can encounter is empathy fatigue. Empathy fatigue is commonly felt by therapists, counselors, caregivers, or anyone who works with other people to understand their problems. As a researcher, you are constantly interacting with participants to understand their intrinsic motivations, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

Imagine you’re a therapist spending hours trying to understand, dissect, and make sense of their patients’ feelings, thoughts, emotions, actions, intrinsic motivations, and everything else about them. You might become overwhelmed with the nature of sensitive or complex topics to the point that you begin to neglect your own mental capacity. When this happens, it’s difficult to bring your best self to your therapy sessions and actively listen to your patients to give them the appropriate recommendations. 

It’s the same for researchers. User researchers spend heaps of time trying to understand and analyze large amounts of data and insights. You might start to feel empathy or compassion fatigue when you become overwhelmed or fatigued from trying to analyze loads of complex information that your ability to empathize with your participants becomes desensitized over time.

When the researcher experiences research fatigue, it’s more likely that the participants will also start to disengage and experience panel fatigue, especially if they feel like they are not being understood or heard with the right listening skills and attention.

Make sure that you are ready to engage with the participants and bring your best mental state to apply deep focus during your research sessions. 

💡Here are some ways you can improve research fatigue:

  • Limit the number of times you facilitate a research session.
  • Schedule some time for breaks in between sessions.
  • Use smart note-taking tools to help you actively listen to participants while capturing important information.

To sum it up, neglecting researcher fatigue can cause participants to feel more disinterested in the research session. Make sure to give yourself ample time and explore using moderated research tools to help you conduct research sessions smarter, not harder. 

🗺️ Looking for moderated research tools to help you conduct studies? Explore the fantastical landscape of UX research tools in our UX Research Tools Map 

4. Write intentional research questions. 

Each step of the testing process should have a clear objective and goal. It’s important to write research questions that are clear, straightforward, and valuable for your study.

When your research questions are unclear, complicated, or difficult to understand, your participants are more likely to feel research panel fatigue and disengage with the study. Designing research questions that are engaging can help improve respondents’ enthusiasm to provide more details in their responses.

Here are some of our tips to help you write more intentional and impactful research questions that don't end in straight line responses ("yes", "no", or "I don't know") from your participants.

  • Write questions that encourage storytelling. In order to get as much detail as possible from your participants, it’s important to write questions that allow open-ended answers. Start your questions with “why”, “how do you do XYZ”, or “tell me about XYZ” to encourage more detailed answers.
  • Create a series of questions. Don’t ask too many things in one question; try asking one thing at a time. We recommend writing a few warm-up questions to get to know the participants, and then a few “digging in” questions to get more detail. 
  • Be clear, concise, and simple. Use the same language that your participants are familiar with, and make your questions straightforward and easy to understand. 

👇Here is an example from Yale University of simple, straightforward usability testing questions that won’t bore your participants to death.

📕 Need more tips for writing great UX research questions? Tune in to this episode of Awkward Silences: How to Ask Great User Research Questions with Amy Chess of Amazon

5. Try alternative or new testing methods. 

We’re all familiar with traditional email surveys asking for feedback. While surveys can be seemingly easy and are a common unmoderated research method, they’re not the best— especially when poorly done. We suggest spicing it up and trying new testing methods to keep the study entertaining or at least interesting for the participants. 

When you constantly use the same testing method and format repetitively, participants might feel research panel fatigue and become uninterested with the topic at hand. One of the best ways to engage with users is to provide variety and novelty, especially if you plan to conduct continuous research on a regular basis with the same users.

Keep in mind that choosing a new or alternative testing method shouldn’t solely depend on how “fun” it is. Instead, take some time to understand different testing methods and identify which method serves your research study best.

Here at User Interviews, we believe in simply talking to your users.

Conducting user interviews are a great way to uncover new opportunities and ideas during the discovery phase, complement both qualitative and quantitative evaluative methods, and can be used in conjunction with continuous research methods such as user feedback surveys to stay up-to-date with changing user needs and opinions over time.

Here are some types of user interviews you can try for your next moderated research study:

  • Generative interviews: Structured conversations used to gather information you need to answer clear, specific, and actionable research questions. Used early in the design and development stage.
  • Contextual interviews: Interviews that take place in a user’s environment to help them feel more natural and comfortable.
  • Continuous interviews: Interviews with users on a regular basis.

📕 Learn more about how to choose a user research method and different user research frameworks in the UX Research Methodologies module of our Field Guide

6. Use tools to help you capture information, avoid repetition, and streamline the testing process. 

When conducting moderated research sessions, there’s so much to keep track of, not to mention being present in the session and actively listening to the participants. The good news is that there are many user research tools to help you streamline the testing process and minimize panel fatigue. 

For example, you can use transcription and note-taking tools to help you keep track of the questions you ask and avoid asking the same questions over again, making participants repeat their answers. Participants who feel like they are answering the similar question over and over again are more likely to experience respondent fatigue and lose interest in answering the study questions with detail and enthusiasm.

In our previous State of User Research Report (2020), we found that 49% of people who do research rely on transcription to help them take notes during research. Transcription can help you keep track of important bits of information from the research session without extra energy on you part.

So when it comes to conducting moderated research, does the onus of panel fatigue fall on the researcher or the tools? Our answer is both.

Researchers are the ones making the testing process comfortable, and designing the research questions and processes. The tools used for UX testing on the other hand, are used to make the testing experience seamless.

It’s a matter of balancing every aspect of the testing experience, from finding the right tools to smooth out technical issues to being intentional with your test questions to minimize research panel fatigue in your participants.

📕 Here’s what NOT to do in user research. We listed all the different ways on How to Conduct a Terrible Focus Group Study for UX Research

Less panel fatigue, more accurate results

Whether you’re not writing the right research questions or conducting excessively long study sessions, research panel fatigue can happen to your participants for a various number of reasons. It’s important to be aware of the different factors that contribute to respondents’ fatigue and disinterest. Use these six steps to help you improve the UX of the research study experience for the participants and minimize panel fatigue to gather better quality insights. 

Remember, the human brain can only retain a certain amount of information before going into overdrive. We’re all humans with complex brains and varying levels of productivity each day, not computers with CPUs that operate at full capacity every time. With this in mind, start being more intentional when designing a research study for your participants. 

🏆 Looking for the right participants for your study? User Interviews is the best place to recruit and manage research participants, even if you’re on a budget. Streamline your recruitment 

Rachell Lee
Copywriter at Seamless.AI

Rachell is a SEO Copywriter at Seamless.AI and former Content Marketing Manager at User Interviews. Content writer. Marketing enthusiast. INFJ. Inspired by humans and their stories. She spends ridiculous amounts of time on Duolingo and cooking new recipes.

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