Having your own panel is vital, with studies showing that every dollar you invest in UX research can return $100. They ensure your design process becomes laser-focused, efficient, and user-centric. But your research panel isn't going to manage itself; you have to invest in its upkeep to get the most out of the insights you uncover.
The benefits? Fewer design iteration cycles, greater user satisfaction, a product that's tailor-made for your audience — the list goes on. This guide will help you understand the ins and outs of building, managing, and growing a user research panel in your organization.
A user research panel is a group of individuals who have agreed to provide you with feedback, insights, and answers to your most pressing questions about your products. Ideally, you've handpicked these people, often your most loyal users or customers, to help you dive deep into your research efforts.
They have willingly opted to participate in your ongoing projects, becoming a part of your study's fabric. These individuals are not just random participants; they're a long-term investment. It's like having your own tailored, on-tap reservoir of study participants, always ready to help you unearth the next big discovery.
Panel management is the strategic process of organizing, nurturing, and overseeing your handpicked group of individuals — your user research panel. It's not just about having these participants, but ensuring they remain engaged, motivated, and primed to provide genuine feedback.
Panel management encompasses everything from recruiting these dedicated panelists to maintaining their interest and commitment over the long term. You focus on optimizing this specially curated, on-demand reservoir of study participants to ensure they consistently offer the most insightful and relevant feedback for your research efforts.
To run a successful UX research practice, you need a panel of research participants. And keeping your panel active and engaged is an ongoing effort.
Every participant on your panel has a unique voice and perspective. By managing your panel effectively, you ensure that these voices are not just heard but actively listened to.
“I believe the strongest voice is always the voice of the user," said Clemens W. Janssen, Lead UX Researcher at Nutrisense. "As a researcher, I’m looking for ways to say, ‘Here's my finding. Here's my conclusion. Don't just trust me. Hear it from the user.’ I want us to look at our users holistically. That means understanding their needs and attitudes from a multidimensional perspective, beyond their usage of our platform.”
An engaged participant is more attuned, provides deeper insights, and has a vested interest in the research outcome. Without proper management, engagement wanes, reducing the quality and depth of feedback received.
Quality in research is paramount. Effective panel management acts as a gatekeeper, ensuring that every feedback loop and every response is of the highest caliber.
By periodically reviewing and refining your panel, you can remove uninterested or less engaged participants, ensuring your research is always backed by top-tier insights. This vigilance ensures that the data you collect stays relevant, accurate, and actionable.
With a finely-tuned panel management system, research activities are streamlined, free from the usual delays associated with participant recruitment and screening. Having a ready pool of invested, pre-qualified participants allows you jump straight into the research, leading to smarter decisions and stronger outcomes, faster.
The gold standard in any longitudinal research study is data consistency. Engaging with the same set of panelists across different time intervals ensures a consistent baseline.
This consistency facilitates a clearer understanding of genuine shifts in user behaviors or sentiments as opposed to transient trends. With effective panel management, you can effectively chart the evolution of user feedback, ensuring clarity and actionable insights.
Every research activity has a cost — both in terms of money and resources. Continually sourcing and recruiting new participants is labor-intensive and financially draining.
On the other hand, a well-managed panel minimizes recurring costs and maximizes ROI.
Research panels comes in two main types: panels of your own users or customers and third-party panels. Let's take a closer look at each.
Internal research panels are made up of individuals who are already deeply acquainted with your product or service. They actively use and/or pay for what you offer, which means their insights and feedback are backed by their real experiences. This familiarity provides a better understanding of particular features, functionalities, or issues.
One benefit of relying on an internal panel is that engaging your existing users in research yields more nuanced feedback about specific features or functionalities since they're already acquainted with your product. It fosters increased loyalty and retention, as you're treating them as valued stakeholders in your product’s evolution. Furthermore, tapping into this built-in audience is often more cost-effective than seeking external panelists.
However, this intimacy has its drawbacks. Being so closely tied to your product, these users may have inherent biases or perceptions that could color their feedback.
Additionally, relying solely on current users might limit the diversity of feedback, potentially sidelining the perspectives and needs of potential or new users. Internal panels are especially valuable for continuous product discovery, gauging user satisfaction, and conducting long-term usability testing.
Third-party panels are composed of research participants who are sourced externally, often through vendors specializing in participant recruitment like Respondent or Prolific. These individuals can offer a fresh, untainted perspective, free from any preconceived notions about your product or service.
Using an external panel offers versatility. If you need a particular demographic for your research, third-party vendors can often tailor participant groups to specific needs like age, occupation, technological expertise, geographic location, and much more. This makes them a viable option for larger studies.
However, the feedback from these panelists might sometimes be more generic, lacking the specific insights that current users might provide. Additionally, relying on third-party services often comes with higher associated costs.
There's also the potential challenge of ensuring the quality and commitment of these participants, especially if they're frequently tapped for various research studies. External panels shine, especially when you're in the early stages of product validation, concept testing, or trying to capture a new user demographic.
UX research panels are an essential asset in the modern product development landscape. But when exactly is the right time to build one?
The answer lies in the nature of your business's goals and roles involved. Here are several scenarios in which it makes sense to invest in a user research panel.
For B2B Software as a Service (SaaS) companies, the stakes are high. Your product integrates deeply into the workflows and operations of other businesses, making continuous feedback critical.
A user research panel is key to understanding the evolving needs of businesses, addressing pain points, and ensuring that the software scales and adapts. Whether you're refining existing features, introducing a new one, or gauging potential market shifts, having a panel of business users at your disposal is a game-changer.
Consumer preferences are notoriously fickle, and the app ecosystem is perpetually evolving. For B2C apps, understanding user behavior, preferences, and pain points is a top priority.
A user research panel can help track these shifts, offering insights into UI and UX preferences, feature requests, and potential market gaps. Given the vast demographic that B2C apps often cater to, having a diverse panel can offer granular insights across different user segments.
Business model aside: if there's a desire to foster a deeper connection with your users or customers, a research panel is vital. Whether through interviews, surveys, usability testing, or other research methods, these panels facilitate a consistent dialogue with your user base. This continuous feedback loop ensures that products or services align with user expectations and market dynamics.
Different roles within a company can harness the power of a user research panel to fulfill their specific objectives. The panel is especially handy for those who play a role in the research and development processes. This may include:
UX researchers are at the forefront of understanding user needs. For them, a research panel is a consistent source of qualitative and quantitative data. It aids in hypothesis formulation, user behavior analysis, and the iterative improvement of the user experience.
ResearchOps manages the logistics and research processes, including the recruitment and maintenance of the user research panel. Effective panel management ensures high-quality, reliable data for research studies. The evolving role of research operations is essential to running effective UX research at scale.
Product managers (PMs) use insights derived from user research panels to shape product strategies and roadmaps. These insights guide them in prioritizing features, improving functionality, and delivering a product that meets user needs and expectations.
Designers use feedback from user research panels to create user-friendly interfaces and interactions. A research panel offers a dedicated cohort for design testing, ensuring the product's visual and functional elements resonate with users. Panel insights can influence aesthetic choices, usability, and overall product design, ensuring a delightful user experience.
Whether for focus groups or A/B testing, marketers can tap into research panels for insights on positioning, branding, and messaging. Understanding user perceptions can guide marketing strategies, campaign creative, and promotional tactics.
When done well, the panel of research participants you build should act like a compass, guiding your business through the intricate maze of user preferences, needs, and behaviors. Here's what it takes to build a successful research panel.
To build a robust panel of research participants, you need to select your panel management software. In many cases, the best tool will be a unified solution that streamlines the processes of building, recruiting, and managing your panel. This includes:
Your panel management tool should make it easy to quickly recruit the right research participants for every study. Whether it's through uploading a list, connecting with an existing database, or sourcing from a new pool of people, an effective panel management tool should make recruitment as effortless as possible. For example, Great Question allows you to build a panel by importing data from CSV files or integrating with tools you already use like Salesforce, Snowflake, and Zapier.
The more data points you can collect on your participants, the smoother your recruitment process will be. The right tool should allow you to create and filter by custom attributes like user behavior, product preferences, or demographics with every import or upload to ensure a comprehensive grasp of your candidate list. This way, you can tailor your research studies to target the most relevant groups, ensuring richer and more relevant insights.
The panel management tool you choose should allow you to protect your brand’s identity, which in turn can enhance response rates. Great Question allows you to create branded landing pages and email templates so folks can easily recognize who they're being contacted by.
“With Great Question, we're able to build custom email templates that match the look and feel of all the other email communications Canva has,” said Tessa Pollard, Research Operations Manager at Canva. “It's really important to maintain our brand consistency and this helped us align with our marketing team’s vision, since we want to ensure we have a consistent way to represent the Canva brand.”
Data privacy and security isn't just a legal requirement; it’s a trust signal. The best panel management tools today prioritize compliance, ensuring that participants' data is securely stored and handled in line with the highest regulatory compliance standards. This includes compliance with everything from GDPR and SOC-2 to HIPAA for companies who handle health data.
A great panel management tool offer guardrails to prevent your participants from becoming overwhelmed with communications. For instance, with Great Question, you can choose how often you want each candidate to be emailed every month to avoid over-contacting them. This allows you to shield participants from excessive feedback requests, ensuring you receive quality feedback without overwhelming or annoying your panel.
The panel management software you choose should ensure your participants have full control over their data. Research participants must be able to actively opt in or out before any information is gathered or used. Great Question allows you to set up your preferred opt-in process, where you can have the participants opt in for both panel and individual studies or just one of them.
Once you've built a comprehensive panel of research participants, the next step is to recruit for specific studies. Here's how to get started:
Use sophisticated filtering to pinpoint those who match the demographic, behavioral, or experiential criteria needed for a particular study. The goal is to create a shortlist of potential participants who are most likely to provide the insights you’re after. (In Great Question, this can be done with custom attributes as mentioned above.)
To further refine this list, use screener surveys. A screener survey is a short, precise questionnaire used to determine whether a panelist's experiences, perceptions, or habits align with your study objectives. Although not required, this extra qualification step helps ensure the relevance of your recruited sample.
Once you've finalized your list, it’s time for outreach. Write a clear email about your study's objectives, what's expected of the participants, and any incentives they might receive. The number of outreach emails you need to send will depend on the size and engagement of your panel. Personalized touchpoints can enhance response rates.
It's crucial to track study participation and behavior throughout. Monitoring who has responded, who has completed the tasks, and who might need follow-ups ensures no data point is missed.
A great panel management tool should make it easy to check study progress and participation at a moment's notice. This allows you to keep a handle on your sample size, ensuring you have a diverse and representative panel. It will also help you avoid over-contacting panelists, safeguard against participant fatigue, and promotes a positive overall experience for everyone involved.
Offering incentives to research participants is a common strategy to boost engagement and show appreciation for the valuable time and information participants share. However, managing research incentives requires a strategic approach to ensure fairness, transparency, and effectiveness. Here’s what you should do to successfully manage incentives for research participants:
First, decide on the incentive that will resonate most with your participants. This could be monetary (cash, gift cards, discounts) or non-monetary (early access to products, exclusive content, loyalty points). Other options include company swag and charity donations.
While monetary incentives can encourage participation, they can also introduce response bias in research. As a result, you should mix monetary and non-monetary incentives to minimize the risk of bias in your studies.
When determining incentives, it's important to understand your participants and how they might perceive different rewards. Offering inappropriate incentives could either exclude essential user segments or risk offending them. For instance, those who work in sectors with strict regulations on gifts won’t appreciate financial rewards for their participation.
It's important to align the incentive's value with the time and effort required for participation. Longer, more intensive studies will likely warrant higher incentives, while short surveys might only require a modest token of appreciation.
From your first outreach email, be transparent about what participants will receive for their contribution. This will prevent confusion and can boost participation rates in the long run. It’ll keep your users happy and protect your brand identity, too.
When deciding on incentives, consider not just the type of reward but also the timing. Should you reward someone just for joining the panel or actively participating in a study? Consider whether the incentive should be consistent or vary based on the level of engagement.
Choose a method of distributing incentives that's efficient and user-friendly. For digital gifts or e-vouchers, an automated email system can be efficient. For company swag or other gifts, consider logistics, delivery times, and costs.
To manage incentives effectively, especially for larger panels, use a system or software to track who has been promised what and when they will receive it. This prevents oversights and ensures timely delivery.
Just as markets, products, and services evolve, so should your incentive strategy. Review its effectiveness, cost implications, and participant satisfaction levels regularly, and adjust as necessary.
Maintaining an ethical research panel goes beyond good business practice; it's a fundamental requirement to ensure trust, reliability, and legality in your research processes. Here are the key ethical and compliance areas you need to understand:
Every participant in your research panel should actively choose to be there, which is why developing clear opt-in procedures is so important. Moreover, participants should be fully aware of the nature, scope, and purpose of any research activity they engage in, and they must provide their explicit consent before any data collection begins.
Ensure that you handle, store, and process user data carefully. Participants should be aware of how their data will be used, and any sharing of this data with third parties should be strictly controlled and communicated.
For companies operating or recruiting participants within the European Union, adhering to GDPR is non-negotiable. This regulation dictates how personal data should be collected, stored, and processed. Ensure that your research practices align with GDPR mandates, emphasizing transparency, the right to access, and the right to erasure.
SOC-2 is an auditing procedure that ensures service providers securely manage data to protect the interests and privacy of their clients and their customers. If you're using third-party services for panel management or data storage, make sure they are SOC-2 compliant. This signals their commitment to high security and operational performance standards.
Compliance with HIPAA is crucial for research panels focusing on health-related topics or those involving health professionals. This U.S. legislation protects sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without consent or knowledge. If your panel deals with health information in any capacity, HIPAA guidelines should be a cornerstone of your operations.
Learn more → Great Question’s HIPAA compliance add-on
In the world of user experience, participant panel management is a core operational component that makes great research possible. And though it certainly takes work, it doesn't have to be a pain. The right panel management tool help you become efficient and effective.
Great Question is designed to simplify recruitment, maintain compliance, and ensure data privacy of your users at all times. The robust platform allows you to build and manage your panel in the same place you conduct your research, manage incentives, synthesize data, and share insights. Because why would it be any other way?
Jack is the Senior Content Lead at Great Question, the end-to-end research platform for customer-centric teams. Previously, he led content marketing and strategy as the first hire at two insurtech startups, Breeze and LeverageRx. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.