E-commerce Link: Research 101
Like many of my columns, the inspiration for this comes from my day-to-day life at an interactive agency. We currently have the pleasure of working with a industrial gas company—helping it re-organize its public-facing Web content, and redesigning the site to make it both more usable and more engaging.
If you're anything like me, you've probably never given even a moment's thought to industrial gas; which, in my opinion, makes the redesign process all the more exciting—an information architecture (IA) challenge. So just for the sake of context, companies like my client supply gasses to a wide variety of industries—to preserve foods, improve the efficiency of industrial processes, treat hospital patients and even put the fizz in soft drinks.
When we initially planned and estimated the site redesign work, we wanted to be sure to include both discovery research and usability evaluation as part of our project scope. I'm a strong believer in user-centered design practices, particularly when site content is so far from the realm of familiar for our designers. We also were mindful of the fact that our research activities would have to be conducted efficiently and not break our client's available budget. This is a big site and a large project. The money set aside has to cover the entire development lifecycle and, therefore, this could not turn into a research bonanza.
All this being the case, when scoping early discovery sessions we agreed with our client to recruit from existing customer lists rather than spending the money to source participants through a third-party market research firm. Not only would customer participants be more accurate and representative users than those coming from cold calls and canned databases, but we already had access to their contact information—or so we thought.
When it actually came time to access those customer lists and set up our card sort sessions, our client's sales team was adamant about not sharing their hard-earned customer contacts. They understandably didn't want to jeopardize the relationships they'd nurtured for the sake of our website research. Before we knew it, my agency was on the hook for finding friends and family to participate in our tests.
I don't know about you, but my friends and family are Web designers, school teachers, business consultants and librarians—I even know a marine biologist. But these people, as smart and talented as they are, know nothing about using hydrogen to produce cleaner burning gasoline and diesel fuels. The last time my husband thought about nitrogen was in memorizing the periodic table for his high school chemistry final. All of this got me thinking about how we can best set ourselves up for research success when the research topic requires participants to have such a unique knowledge base.
In my experience, there are three somewhat guerilla recruiting methods that we as researchers can use if we don't have the time or budget to bring in a third-party sourcing firm:
Friends and Family
Friends and family recruits tend to work best when research isn't too terribly specialized or doesn't require deep subject matter expertise in a given topic area. We've been successful with this type of recruiting when the focus of our studies is a common experience, task or challenge faced by many—home remodeling projects, lawn care, health insurance research and enrollment, even opening an online stock brokerage or bank account. These are processes we go through as part of everyday living and generally well-recruited participants can offer meaningful insights, even if they happen to be our siblings or neighbors.
Customer or Stakeholder Lists
Client-supplied lists are helpful in recruiting research participants when there is a known or targeted set of site users. Good examples where we've been successful are in recruiting a cross section of an organization's employees for researching an intranet redesign, or with product dealers and their customers, particularly for larger, more expensive or B-to-B purchases. Beware in this scenario not to fall into the industrial gas trap that we encountered. Make sure that client lists will be available without fail when needed.
While it doesn't generally work well for usability evaluation or hour-long one-on-one interviews, grabbing folks in a particular situation can prove to be a very valuable, not to mention inexpensive, discovery research technique. This method works best when you would like to speak with recruits in context or in the moment.
We've had luck with this for a major fast food chain when redesigning its public-facing website. We offered a $10 coupon for 15 minutes of people's time as they came in or out of the restaurant. We also have used this technique with customers waiting to have their cars serviced or batteries replaced at an auto service center. Our findings fueled the strategy for a battery site redesign. We've even chatted up those waiting for flights and connections in busy Chicago airports, all in service of the design of desktop as well as mobile airport website experiences. Captive audiences can relay really personal and pointed thoughts to a discovery researcher.
Do Your Homework
With all three approaches, we want to stress that less expensive recruiting methods absolutely do not mean less legwork or due diligence. Even guerilla recruits should be purposefully chosen, and, no matter what the circumstance, researchers should draft formal screeners to make sure they're getting the right mix of appropriate participants. The pool of recruits must meet agreed-upon qualifications and not just be warm bodies filling research slots. Be choosey.
In hindsight, we should have confirmed right from the beginning that customer lists would be absolutely available for our specialized industrial gas research. If we had learned early in our work that client-supplied lists weren't a possibility, we would have suggested splurging on recruiting through a market research firm. This would have ensured that our participants were qualified and capable of offering truly relevant opinions. It also would have saved us quite a scramble in trying to pull together discovery research activities.
Cristin Siegel is director of user experience and research at Designkitchen, a Chicago-based interactive agency. Reach her at email@example.com.