How can we reach internal users and get them excited about participating in user research?

5 min read Ashlea McKay

Dear Optimal Workshop,

I am having real difficulty getting users within my organization to respond to sessions requests. Our company is building technology that will be used in our company and sold for other companies to use and benefit from. Our users at our company are very overworked and sometimes working very late. Their time is very valuable, but we do need time to shadow them (observe the working with a short question session afterwards) and need them for testing the product (either pre-production or post-production). How can we reach users and get them excited to allow us to observe them and for them to carve out 30-45 minutes to improve the product they spend all day in?

Thank you 🙂

Internal users are more often than not a unique breed of research participant. They’re so accessible yet so hard to get ahold of and often impossible to lock into a session time. I know exactly how you feel. I’ve been there several times myself. Those experiences taught me a lot and I’d like to share some of those lessons learned with you.

5 ways to boost engagement with internal research participants

1. Stop recruiting via email

Email recruitment doesn’t always work – and by that I mean when you, the researcher, approach potential participants directly via email. From what I’m hearing, I’m guessing you’ve already discovered that. The reasoning behind emailing them is sound — you think you’re being helpful by providing all the information in one hit that they can read at a time that suits them. Except in many cases, that time never comes. Busy people look at emails like that and put them aside for actioning at a later time and they don’t always come back to it. You need to explore other avenues for participant recruitment. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Put an announcement in an internal newsletter or on the intranet
  • Ask a senior executive to send out a brief announcement to all staff – people are more likely to pay attention to messages from senior leadership
  • Pick up the phone and call your prospective participants
  • Approach people in person — at their desks, in the break room, hallways etc

2. Bring greater visibility to what you’re doing

People don’t know what they don’t know. Maybe they just don’t know about the amazing work you’re doing! Have you considered creating a physical space to share the story of your project? When we’re trying to gain stakeholder buy in, taking them on that journey goes a long way and your internal users are stakeholders too! Claim yourself a large wall space in a highly trafficked area like walkways near kitchens and elevators and start telling that story on the wall. You could also put regular updates in the newsletter that goes to all the staff or create a digital space on the intranet.

3. Get creative with incentives

Providing incentives to participants is a great way to get people excited about the amazing work you’re doing! Depending on how much flexibility you have in the way of funding, there are several things you might try. Some ideas include:

  • meal vouchers to local restaurants
  • giftcards
  • take everyone out for lunch
  • host after work drinks
  • UX team branded gear e.g., keep cups, stickers, t-shirts (these rather fetching navy blue cardigans with elbow patches…)

If money is tight or perhaps you work for an organization that doesn’t usually provide incentives for internal research participants (e.g., government) fear not, you still have options. You could:

  • create an office trophy to build engagement
  • host a morning tea for the team that has the highest number of people participating in the study
  • get your team together to bake cupcakes to give to participants: team bonding time + cost efficient incentives = #winning!
  • offer participants a learning and development opportunity (e.g., mentoring/training/shadowing opportunities) — I’ve seen this done in call centres and it works really well
  • give public thanks at standups, on company chats or during other meetings. Bake a cake for the two participants you do get and then see if you get more the next week.

4. Be flexible in your research approach

Not everyone is comfortable with being observed but perhaps they might be able to provide value in some other way. Believe me I hear you about the need to observe and no one loves a good contextual enquiry more than I do, but maybe you might need to try something else just to get your foot in the door. You could try a short survey or a remote usability study (no more than five questions or tasks) to benchmark the current state and at the end of that study, you could include an opportunity for them to opt in to be observed. You might also need to consider reducing the amount of time you intend to observe people for. You may find that 20 minutes might be better received and then you might get more people, which would make up for the reduction in time.

5. Build a pool of internal participants to draw from in the future

A few years ago, I was working on an intranet redesign project at a very large organization with 20+ offices nationwide. I knew I had multiple research and testing activities ahead of me, so I built a research participant pool to draw from. Each of the 20+ offices had its own community/events team and I asked each team to send out one email to their office asking for people to register their interest on the database I created (it was totally an Excel spreadsheet and I know you can do better). Prospective participants were told they would be approached individually once research needs arose and could opt out at anytime. I asked them to leave their name, phone number and to indicate their interest in participating in the following: observation research activities, group activities and one-on-one research activities. Each option came with a description and funnily enough the one with the lowest strike rate was the group activity! In the end the pool had more than 800 internal users interested in participating in user research. It took a lot of the legwork out of recruiting, which allowed me to focus on more important things.

All the best and I hope your project goes well!

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Ashlea McKay

Ashlea McKay is a UX researcher, writer and keynote speaker with an industrial design background. She has more than a decade of professional experience spanning both the public and private sectors. Ashlea co-founded UX advice column UX Agony Aunt with Optimal Workshop in 2015 and is based in Australia.