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Learn 9 actionable strategies for relieving common recruitment and panel management pains as your UX research practice scales.
Before we get into what you should do to streamline participant management as your team grows, let’s talk about why (we think) you should do it.
In this year’s State of User Research Report—unpacking findings about the field of user research from our 4th-annual survey of user researchers from more than 50 countries and in teams of all sizes—44% of respondents said that at their companies, full-time User Researchers are embedded in non-research teams across the org (versus residing on a dedicated Research team). Even in very small organizations, researchers are found across more than 1 department on average.
This distribution of research—often referred to as research democratization—might happen organically or with a forethought plan. In either case, it’s happening because leaders understand the importance of using real, data-backed user insights to drive decisions about their products and businesses, and the demand for research is growing. Companies are starting to evolve their organizational research models to empower other teams like Product and Marketing to conduct research on their own and meet this demand.
At User Interviews, we believe that this is a shift in the right direction. With more teams conducting their own user research, customer empathy grows across the business. Each team can make better decisions based on real insights, creating a truly customer-centric operational model.
And that customer-centricity—as Ferdinand Goetzen, CEO and Co-Founder of Reveall, says on the Awkward Silences podcast—makes all the difference:
“There's just such a big difference between knowing your customer from something somebody wrote versus having talked to them yourself. That customer empathy… brings everything you do in a company to life. It makes your product better and more satisfying to build. It just makes everything better. I'm a big fan of talking to customers.”
As important as (we believe) research democratization is for speeding up research cycles and creating an insights-driven culture, we’d never advise you to jump into it haphazardly.
Research Operations (also called Research Ops or ReOps) is the organization and optimization of people, processes, tools, and strategies to create repeatable systems that support research at scale and amplify its impact across an organization. Similar to operational roles on other teams, ReOps helps folks do their jobs more efficiently and effectively—especially in democratized research models where UXR knowledge and tasks may be widely distributed.
Whether you choose to create and hire for a Research Operations subdivision or let ReOps responsibilities fall to full-time researchers, that’s up to you—but we recommend you start seriously considering your first ReOps hire early on.
(For reference, just 90 days after joining User Interviews, our own VP of User Research decided to onboard a Research Operations Manager as her first hire. Learn her thinking behind that decision.)
Currently, most companies are still operating without ReOps—only 1 in 5 researchers said their company has a dedicated Research Ops Manager in the 2022 State of User Research Report, with a higher occurrence of ReOps on larger teams. However, these same folks reported being more satisfied with their jobs overall.
It would seem that ReOps plays an integral role in alleviating common researcher frustrations, so we predict (and hope) that dedicated ReOps disciplines will become more popular in coming years, as research practices continue to mature and scale.
Stakeholder management can create a bottleneck even on small research teams, so it’s no surprise that this pain can increase as the team grows.
As Jeanette Fuccella describes in her article about managing a user research panel at LexisNexis Design, stakeholders may block or delay recruitment before it even starts due to lack of trust, or account owners wanting to be kept in the loop on communications:
“For various reasons, stakeholders can be protective of their customer base which can lead to small roadblocks in your recruitment plan. This can be relieved by communication and education. We’re not spamming users, we’re asking them to participate in a professional community where they can actually feel like their voice is being heard. So it’s just an educational challenge that we have to face.”
So how do you help stakeholders to feel more comfortable with the idea of UXRs and PwDRs (people who do research, like designers, product managers, or marketers) contacting customers for research? Involve them in the early stages. This begins even before you start project work—during onboarding and as you’re getting to know your team—but once the project has kicked off, interviewing stakeholders is a great way to get them involved from the outset.
Interviewing stakeholders is a helpful step in the planning stages of a research project—and for some projects, it’s essential. By bringing stakeholders in early on to learn their needs and goals for research and set expectations around the rest of the study—including regarding any tools, processes, or guardrails you might use to ensure consistent, high-quality research practices across the organization—you can help them feel more confident moving forward.
The downside of this is that interviewing stakeholders can be a bottleneck in and of itself. Stakeholders don’t always have time to participate in in-depth interviews, and they likely don’t need to be formally interviewed for every project. As your research practice scales, stakeholder management will need to evolve too.
Many of the core components of Research Ops—including governance, enablement, and advocacy—will help you keep stakeholders informed and comfortable with Research, without having to commit to regular, time-consuming interviews. We’ll get into more detail about these components (and how to implement them) later on.
Challenging, annoying, difficult, and dread are just a few of the most common words researchers have used to describe recruitment.
As Becky White, former Design Research Lead at Atlassian, describes in her article, recruitment is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome, even after taking traditional steps like hiring a dedicated Research Coordinator:
“A research sign-up page was posted on our website (which went to a spreadsheet). Atlassian hired a Research Coordinator. But the process was still quite manual, slow, and perceived as a bottleneck. Frustrated, many researchers resorted back to finding participants on their own.”
Although recruitment has historically been cited as the most painful aspect of UX research—it doesn’t have to be.
User Interviews, the all-in-one research recruiting and participant management platform, was created to make recruitment less of a hassle. Through Recruit, we connect researchers to our panel of 3.4 million vetted participants, and also make it easy for researchers to manage their own participant panel with Research Hub.
Of course, we’re not the only solution for streamlining the recruitment process. Many researchers still use recruitment agencies, intercept surveys, social media, and other tools to source both internal and external participants—but our point here is, you don’t have to dread recruitment, no matter the size or maturity of your research team.
You have options. Lean on them.
🧠 Learn how to write compelling recruitment emails—with best practices & sample templates to help you boost response rates and recruit faster.
Ethics and consent are more than just legal boxes to check. They’re critical for maintaining positive relationships with the prospects and customers who participate in your research (and you know, being a good human).
As your research practice matures, you need to make sure nobody’s cutting corners—misrepresenting study information, failing to collect signatures for consent notices and other important forms, or using/sharing private participant data in inappropriate ways. These mistakes are rarely malicious—they’re oversights that can seem small and unimportant to anyone unfamiliar with best practices and protocols.
This means that anyone who’s doing research in your organization needs to be both 🧠 aware of the importance of ethical practices and 🛠 equipped with the tools and knowledge necessary to follow those practices.
Throughout this playbook, you’ll find multi-faceted strategies grounded in ethical, transparent research practices—from enablement and oversight to technical guardrails and automation.
In scaling or democratized teams, wherein more and more people who do research (PwDRs) are managing recruitment and interfacing with participants on their own, it’s important that lead researchers and research ops are able to offer guidance, oversight, and quality control during the process.
Here’s a playbook for managing the most common challenges growing teams face:
Let’s discuss each in more detail.
⚠️ Bad participants = bad research. Learn how to spot poor-fit participants before they ruin your study.
A good plan is a prerequisite for good research.
But on a growing UX research team, plans and strategies may be forced through the bottleneck before they’re ready, rushed for the sake of time or under-developed without the careful eye of a trained researcher.
As your team grows, you need guidelines and guardrails in place to ensure that every instance of research begins with an effective plan. Anyone conducting research will need to consider:
Of course, some of these questions will need to be answered on a case-by-case basis; for example, whether or not research is needed in the first place will depend on previous research you’ve done or other data you have on hand. Likewise, the right methodology depends on a project’s specific goals.
These important, strategic decisions can’t be automated in any way—but if PwDRs don’t have a formal background in planning effective studies, you’ll need to enable them somehow.
Two common approaches for research strategy enablement are UXR oversight and PwDR education. For most teams, we recommend a mix of both, leaning more heavily on education and bringing in UXR oversight only when necessary.
In some cases, you might want your research team to have hands-on involvement in the planning stages of a study.
According to the State of User Research Report, most organizations divide research responsibilities between UXRs and PwDRs based on the type of research; full-time UXRs tend to focus on strategic and discovery research, while PwDRs are more likely to do evaluative research and user testing, usually in the later stages of product development.
For example, you might funnel all research requests through a team of dedicated User Researchers or Research Ops managers, who then determine how (and if) those requests should be handled by Research or another team. The level of assistance may vary; for some projects, a full-time researcher will facilitate the study from start to finish; for others, they might just act as support.
This researcher-assisted approach is understandable, especially if you’re only just dipping your toes into a democratized approach, have a very small team, or are working with particularly sensitive topics. But as the volume of research requests from other teams grows, researchers may struggle to process (and facilitate) these requests in a timely and effective manner.
Whether this assisted model is an organizational rule or a go-to for special cases, the right tooling can help. Recruitment and panel management software, such as User Interviews, can streamline the more tedious aspects of a research project—screening applicants, collecting signatures, distributing incentives, etc—to free up time for support and strategic oversight by trained researchers or Research Ops.
With the right instructions, guardrails, and playbooks in place, you can teach PwDRs how to tackle research planning and strategy for their own projects, minimizing the amount of involvement required by UXRs.
For example, the User Interviews Research team offers educational materials in the form of:
Since implementing these enablement strategies less than a year ago, we’ve seen growth in:
Along with setting the stage for a smooth, impactful study, effective plans and strategies can help you boost stakeholder confidence and cut through the red tape more effectively—more on this in the next section.
Stakeholders may feel squeamish about letting multiple team members contact customers for research. How will you track who’s contacted who? Will communication be consistent and professional across teams?
To ease these concerns, you need to create contact limits and invite rules, maintain consistent branding and communication, and pair customer research with external recruits. Here’s how:
Some panel management tools, such as User Interviews’s Research Hub, provide controls and built-in oversight at both the team and organization level. With invite rules and limits, you can set guardrails around who can be contacted for studies and how often. You could, theoretically, lay out these rules and limits manually with an internal ReOps playbook, but tracking and enforcing them across multiple teams and projects will be incredibly difficult.
Any touchpoint your company has with customers contributes to the overall customer experience—so you need to ensure that those touchpoints give customers a good impression of your business. Work with your Marketing, Customer Success, and Sales teams to set clear guidelines around branding and communication across teams, so that customers have the same professional, high-quality experience—no matter which team member they communicate with in the course of a study.
Many stakeholders are concerned with researchers annoying customers by over-contacting them to participate in multiple studies. To lessen this risk, recruit from an outside panel when appropriate, such as when you need to test for usability among novices or new customer groups. Depending on the goals of your research, you may find it useful to talk to both types of participants—just make sure you have a system for panel management that can easily differentiate between the two.
External recruitment is hard enough, but recruiting customers for continuous research is often even harder. As Matthew Morrison of Braze describes on the Awkward Silences podcast, customer recruitment comes with unique challenges, including:
So how do you coordinate recruitment and communication between researchers, account managers, and individual customers?
You need to be able to track participant activity across teams. You can manage this in a few different ways:
Dropping the ball on this type of legal work can wreak havoc on your research and brand—at best, stopping research in its tracks, and at worst, landing your company in costly and reputation-damaging legal trouble.
You need to ensure the consistency, ethics, and legality of your research practice as it grows. Because writing forms, collecting signatures, and checking other legal boxes isn’t the most glamorous of tasks, the best way to do this is to make it as easy and painless as possible by investing in tools and systems that streamline or automate the process.
On a scaling team, nurturing healthy data habits becomes all the more important. You need to ensure all data consent and privacy standards are met, while keeping your database up-to-date and reliable. Additionally, you might need to integrate relevant data from sales, support, and product teams for better, richer user insights.
As Becky White, Lead Design Researcher at Canva (formerly Atlassian) describes in her article about setting up an internal research participant panel at Atlassian:
“Once we actually began using the panel, we realized we could never wholly rely on the information in our database. Not because people were lying — but because their situations may have changed from the time they initially signed up.”
For an internal recruitment panel to be useful, you need strict guidelines around data governance and privacy. You should have a plan for:
Storing participant data in a Google Sheet and sharing it among researchers, product teams, and account managers is not going to cut it. Any tools you use to collect, store, and update participant data should be secure, private, and reliable by design.
Anyone who has worked in a growing org knows all too well that scaling teams can quickly outgrow their tool stacks. It’s not uncommon to switch testing platforms or shuffle team structures around to meet new or additional requirements.
That means you need tools and processes that bend, not break—and it’s preferable to think about the scalability of your processes and toolstack ahead of time, before they’ve become unmanageable.
As you’re building (or updating) your research tool stack, evaluate the scalability and flexibility of a panel management tool by its pricing plans, integrations, and core capabilities needed at different stages of your growth.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to create internal playbooks that clearly delineate processes for new team members (or current team members in need of a refresh).
Here’s an example of User Interviews’s internal research playbook, from our VP of User Research, Roberta Dombrowski:
Choosing the right type and amount of incentives and distributing them efficiently can be tricky, and especially so on large, distributed research teams.
If you offer incentives that are too high, you risk going over budget or attracting “professional testers” who can skew your data. On the other hand, if you offer incentives that are too low, you might struggle to attract enough participants in the first place.
Jeanette Fuccella describes this delicate balance in her article:
“Even though we provide incentives to participate in our research studies, our desire is to recruit individuals for whom the incentive is a token of gratitude, not their primary reason for participating in the research.”
Worse still, forgetting to distribute promised incentives because of time or tracking issues will lead to disgruntled participants chasing you down, potentially wreaking havoc on your company’s reputation.
To streamline this aspect of recruitment and panel management, you need to consider:
Our User Research Incentives Calculator offers recommendations for incentive amounts based on study type, session location, and types of participants.
Here are our recommendations for optimal incentives from our 2022 Research Incentives Report, a deep-dive into the data from nearly 20,000 successfully completed projects launched with User Interviews in the past year:
Beyond the incentive amount, however, you need to make sure you’re offering incentives that participants can and want to redeem. A US-based participant has little use for Euros, and a participant who never flies isn’t going to be happy with a gift card to Southwest Airlines. Different tools provide different options for distributing incentives, so it’s important to double-check the incentive types, currencies, and distribution options before investing in a solution.
Along with the type and amount of incentive, you also have to make sure you distribute incentives in a timely manner to avoid aggravating participants. We recommend sending incentives as soon as possible, but no more than 10 days after the completed session.
Long-term studies might require multiple split payouts. If this is the case, make sure your participants are well aware of this nuance ahead of time.
Often, folks use emails or digital gift cards to distribute incentives manually, although these may not be the most efficient of solutions. To help you distribute incentives in a more timely manner, you can use tools like User Interviews, Tremendous, or TestingTime.
It can be hard enough to maintain consistent messaging and style on a single team; this challenge and its potential impact on your brand increase exponentially as communication about research gets distributed across more people and teams. Emails are rushed or lost in inboxes, and different researchers communicate in different ways, giving participants the impression of a messy internal process.
This can be especially damaging to large, enterprise companies with an established brand to maintain. To showcase your credibility and maintain customer trust throughout the study, you’ll want to include brand logos, use an on-brand voice and tone, and be consistent and punctual with your communications.
One way to do this is to create internal communication playbooks and guidelines, offering tips for timely and effective communication and providing any relevant branded assets to include. But as with any internal documentation, if these playbooks aren’t well-circulated throughout the team, some researchers may not follow them. If it’s been a while since you shared these guidelines, it never hurts to remind people of the resources that exist, why they’re important, and where to find them.
You can also consider investing in a panel management solution like Research Hub, which allows you to configure branding and communication defaults for your team to ensure professional interactions with participants.
You probably have at least one manual (yet necessary) task that you dread doing at work, like pre-screening candidates or transcribing notes from video interviews.
You endure these tasks because they have to get done—but because of the repetition, inefficiency, and frustration of knowing you could be filling your time with something more meaningful, these manual tasks might be the least favorite part of your day-to-day.
Although some aspects of research, such as developing a research strategy, are best done by a human, plenty of tasks and processes can be automated to make your life that much easier.
Take a look at your existing toolstack and workflow, and consider what can (or should) and can’t (or shouldn’t) be automated.
Jeanette Fuccella, Director of Research & Insights at Pendo.io, did this exercise during her time at Prototypr, and realized that recruitment was one of the first processes she needed to automate as the team grew:
“Looking at our research lifecycle, we identified user recruitment as one of the most time-consuming and yet most easily automated aspects of our work.”
Here are some common, manual tasks that, while not always difficult, can easily become a time suck for busy researchers (plus, tools that can you can use to automate them):
Along with developing playbooks to enable research throughout your org, you can invest in purpose-built tools to make following these playbooks as simple as possible. Panel management tools can provide the structure, automation, and ease that you need to overcome common participant management challenges as your team grows.
As you’re evaluating different solutions, keep in mind the many systems and processes that you’ll need for effective panel management—including recruitment itself, labeling and filtering participants, and scheduling and tracking participant activity—as well as the tools you currently use.
It’s helpful to consolidate your toolstack as much as possible without sacrificing best-of-breed capabilities. If you can’t or don’t want to replace your existing tools, you’ll need to make sure the panel management solution you choose can communicate with them.
User Interviews’s Research Hub is flexible enough to support both solo researchers and even large research teams working across massive user populations. Any team member can self-serve their recruit, while Research Ops have unparalleled control to set guardrails and governance standards for the entire organization.
You’ll only need to use one tool to reach anyone you wish to talk to—existing customers or external audiences in any niche. Built for ReOps, loved by researchers, and trusted by participants, Research Hub allows you to democratize research safely, steadily, and with control.
A single tool that can help you clean up every aspect of your recruitment and panel management process? It may sound like a no-brainer to researchers on the ground, but it’s not always easy to get stakeholder buy-in for a new software.
Here are some tips and things to consider when soliciting buy-in:
Don’t wait for your recruitment challenges to fizzle over before addressing them. Prevent the mess ahead of time with Research Hub, the #1 panel management software for teams that do research at scale.
Customizable enough to support the enterprise, yet simple enough for small teams to use out of the box, Research Hub powers recruitment for many of the world’s most customer-centric organizations. Whether you’re a solo researcher, small team, or mature research organization, Research Hub serves as your single source of truth for participant management.
Product Education Manager
Marketer, writer, poet. Lizzy likes hiking, people-watching, thrift shopping, learning and sharing ideas. Her happiest memory is sitting on the shore of Lake Champlain in the summer of 2020, eating a clementine.
Leadership & Strategy
September 28, 2023
We do our best work as researchers when we are open to learning from and collaborating with others. User Research Leader and Coach, Roberta Dombrowski shares tips for collaborating for research success.