Repost: Make Your Participants Better

This article was originally written by Research Manager Riki Neill for the GreenBook Blog as part of their “Fresh Voices” series. But we wanted to share it here, too. Research methods are becoming more complicated and intricate, requiring more and more from our participants. It’s no wonder that those who have done it before are better at it.

Better than Before

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.

confused man

Image by Flickr user brad montgomery

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.


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