If you have experience running user research at an organization you are already familiar with the concept of a participant panel.
I want you to try to think about them in a completely new way.
Instead of a resource to help you do your user research, they are a tool you can use to do user research even better, faster, and more naturally.
After all, just because we have been doing it a certain way for 20 years doesn’t mean it still makes sense to keep doing it that same way, particularly in today’s modern product development landscape.
If you have no idea what a participant panel is, that’s fantastic.
Let’s all start together at the very basics.
What is a participant panel?
Think of it as a CRM but for user research.
Nothing ground breaking here right?
If you look around you’ll see most people describe a participant panel as a group of pre-screened people who have opted in to doing user research with you. And this is absolutely true, but at Empathetic we also see it as more.
Anyone who uses your product should be on this panel. Those who have opted in should absolutely be tagged as opted in to user research but you will get a better UX picture by having all your users there. After all, a lot of users who haven’t explicitly opted in might still be interested in talking with you.
We see a participant panel as a sort of user database. There’s a lot you can learn from, both those who have opted in and out of traditional user research.
A participant panel tells you critical information about your users, not only facilitating faster user research but fundamentally helping you to get to know your users.
For each user, the single most important thing your panel should include is how to contact them. It would also be nice to know:
- Their name
- Title / role
- Time zone
Some engagement metrics, based on their behavior in your product, such as:
- Which products or services they use
- Last logged in
- How much time they’ve spent in your product (i.e., a weekly average)
- How long they’ve been a customer
- What type of customer they are (prospect, free user, which paid plan, etc.)
As well as some information around their interactions with user research:
- NPS/CSAT responses over time
- When they were last invited to participant in a user research project, survey, etc.
- Last time they participated in user research as well as a list of all their engagements with your product’s UXR (surveys, interviews, etc.).
- A way to view their previous survey responses, interviews, etc.
- If they’ve opted into or out of being contacted about user research
- Notes from those on your product team (or yourself) about this user. It might be notes about their responses, requests, pain points, etc. Maybe it was how open they were to engaging in prior studies, etc.
Why have a participant panel?
Most people will say you should have a participant panel because:
- Having a panel allows you to recruit quicker which in turn allows you to run more studies with a faster turnaround.
- Saves time and money
And those reasons are absolutely true. But the real value is so much more.
When done right, a participant panel can become a tool in your user research toolkit.
An incredibly powerful tool. Let me explain.
Graduate from superficial user knowledge
No longer are these users nameless, faceless, unknown “users”.
They are real people who are using your product and with a panel like the one I’m describing, like the one we’re building here at Empathetic, you can truly get to know them.
This in turn will allow you to serve them better.
That’s good business.
For each and every user
When you look at an individual participant in your panel. You can also start to gather deeper insights into each and every experience they have had with your product.
Let’s say your company sends out NPS surveys as a measure of your product’s overall UX.
A participant panel can allow you to see how a specific user’s NPS score has changed over time.
Are they happier and happier over time? Are they less and less happy over time?
Among other things, this opens the door to powerful iterative user research.
Maybe you’re working on improving a specific area of your product.
You send out a micro survey about their satisfaction with that product area over time as you make improvements.
Do you see their satisfaction increasing over time as you improve that part of your product?
This will truly allow your users to inform, and eventually even guide, your product strategy.
Segments of users
Let’s take this a step further.
Imagine your product’s NPS score is not bad. In fact, it might be pretty good.
However, you’re seeing a lot of customers churn. Why?
If everyone seems to like your product, via the good NPS scores, why are you seeing higher churn rates than usual?
You jump into your participant panel and filter it by different segments to see if you notice patterns.
What is this user segment’s collective NPS score? Has it changed over time?
By looking at your panel in this way you realize that one specific type of customer is giving lower NPS scores and tends to be unhappy with your product and is churning at a higher rate. 🤯
You realize that your product isn't serving this particular type of customer well. This information is immediately actionable.
Let’s look at a completely different use case.
You know that in the next quarter you want to invest in improving a specific area of your product.
What are the UX problems? Where are the opportunities?
You have a few ideas but you want to find out if you’re on the right path.
So, you take a look at your participant panel.
You filter it down to just those users who use that product area and that have opted in to talking with you.
You send them an email with a link to schedule a call with you.
After talking to a handful you are feeling confident about what the UX problems are with that product area and some opportunities too.
You then jump back into your participant panel and filter down to those users who don’t use that product area.
With that set of users you get clarity on what’s stopping users from using that specific product area and some ideas to increase adoption.
Can you see how, with both of these examples, the participant panel was a tool you could use to gather insights about your customers UX and specifically what actions to take to improve your product.
The key to these insights was talking to and looking at the right customers.
We’re just scratching the surface here. But you can see how meaningful groups or segments can bring some deep insights into your product’s UX.
Give your customers a voice
At the end of the day, user research should be about improving your product’s experience one user at a time. At Empathetic we view a participant panel as a critical part of that process.
It gives your users a voice.
It connects their behavior with what they have to say.
And it keeps it all organized without effort on your part so that as time goes on your participant panel becomes more and more useful to you and your customer’s voice gets easier to hear and understand.
A long time user’s panel would show their engagement with your product over time, as well as a list of all survey responses and interviews and feature requests. It makes it really easy to see what this person cares about, what they love about your product, and what they really want to see changed.
And all of this information is together in one convenient location, right inside your participant panel.
No need to hunt around to try to find it.
It’s all there allowing you to connect pieces that were previously (without a panel like this) very difficult and time consuming to connect.
Who should be on your panel?
It’s not just those who have opted in to user research.
No, a participant panel like the type we’re building here at Empathetic, should have all your users in it.
Think about it. Every time your customer logs into your product, you have the advantage of being able to do user research without it ever feeling like it and sometimes without you having to do anything.
So, even though we do want to have a list of users that are open to talking to us, those who have opted in, we don’t need to limit ourselves.
In fact, it is incredible advantageous to not limit ourselves. It gives us a better picture of our overall product UX.
How to get users into your participant panel?
You might be thinking, wow that is going to be a lot of work to add all these users and keep them all updated.
That’s maybe the best part. After an initial setup, it should actually be little to no work at all.
At Empathetic it will be really easy to get participants into your panel.
- If they respond to a in-app micro survey they will be automatically added in.
- If they are a customer and using your product they will be automatically added in.
- Every interview and survey is connected to a participant, so if you have an interview or survey someone who isn’t in your panel they will be added in.
- Customer support can add users in after interacting with them or make notes on their panel profile page
- Sales and marketing can add in potential customers, along with notes on what they're most interested in with your product, what's missing, etc.
- Use a micro survey in app, on your website, on social media, at in-person events or conferences and they'll be added in too
Paying customers, free customers, churned customers, potential customers. They should all be in your panel.
Once they’re added in, their participant panel page will be updated and augmented with each interaction with your product.
Maybe you look in your panel and you realize you don’t have a lot of customer's names, so you run a targeted micro-survey on all customers in your product that you don’t know their name. You simply ask them “what is your name?”
When and if they respond their participant profile page is updated with their name.
“What is your role”
Their page is updated to include their role.
Over time you can learn a lot from them about what they like about your product, who they are, what they care about and so much more. And it’s all collected there on their participant profile page.
User research should make a positive impact on your customers and your business
User research can get messy and often time left behind, particularly at a product company where we’re moving so fast.
If we’re being real honest, we also don’t always realize the questions we have until we have to make a product decision. At that point it’s sometimes too late to do any sort of user research.
Participant panels, like the one we’re building here at Empathetic, won’t solve this problem but it will certainly help when you’re in a situation like that.
When faced with a question, your participant panel might just have the answer. At the very least it will inform you. It will help you be more customer centric and turn to your users when faced with a product question.
If you have questions about a panel like this or want to see a demo, sign up here.