Strategies to Improve Participation in User Research and Assessment Activities

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Introduction

Digital marketing practices like search engine optimization (SEO), social media marketing, content marketing and email marketing are most often associated with business and sales but rarely with assessment and user research activities in a library. When we start research and assessment activities around specific U-M Library programs, products and services, it’s easy to assume that they are broadly valued, understood and used. However, we risk losing valuable opportunities to connect our resources, products and services with more of our target audience if we don’t understand and practice sustainable and effective marketing and communications strategies. 

As a user experience and accessibility specialist I conduct frequent user research activities for existing and future products and services in the Library.  I’d like to highlight a few simple digital marketing strategies that have helped me as I work with teams to recruit and better understand the people we serve. 

Know and Grow Your Target Audience

Whether your assessment or user research activities involve 10 or 1000 participants, it’s critical to understand and to connect with the people who would benefit from the resources your library or department offers. At the beginning of a project I often ask myself and team members, "who knows the characteristics of the audience we’re looking to recruit and who can help scale our study related communication with them?" Within the Library key allies can be subject librarians, staff managers, public services staff, and Ask a Librarian service staff. When coordinating with departments and research groups on campus our champions are often campus groups (Council for Disability Concerns), campus offices who serve a specific population (Office for Service for Students with Disabilities), and communication coordinators or administrative assistants.  

Another way to understand your audience for recruitment activities is to talk directly with a handful of people who already use or would like to use your service or information resources. What are the similarities between common users of your service (academic disciplines, roles, times and conditions when they seek and use services and resources, etc.)? Don’t be afraid to spend time in the contexts and locations (online and in-person) where your audience actively communicates and seeks help in the context of their work. 

Once you understand and document challenges, characteristics and needs of your target audience you can represent this data within simple user personas. These distilled representations of your audience can be used/adapted continuously to capture insights on where to improve or adjust resources and services. 

As part of the Library Website Redesign Project I leveraged several user personas to help define attributes of key participant populations for research activities. I collaborated with Assessment Specialist, Craig Smith, to define a diverse and large enough population sample of faculty and graduate students to provide us with enough data to improve our website information architecture. For example, two target audiences -- Library staff and graduate students registered with the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) -- provided us with rich and unique data showing unique user perspectives around how Library services and resources are organized. This data helped our website redesign team improve the structure and the labels for our navigation content, and to make our products and services more discoverable for all our users.   

When we were ready to invite our key audiences to test our navigation, we considered the academic calendar and when they were typically available. We also considered days of the week when they may have the appropriate time and concentration needed to understand and participate in research study activities. Timing is never perfect for all target users but it’s important to test and refine email communication times to better match when people are available.

Communication and Recruitment   

When planning and writing communication for assessment and user research activities it’s helpful to plan and draft email communications beforehand. A communication sequence (to introduce, connect, invite, confirm and follow up with target participants) helps maintain the tone and voice of your messaging throughout your assessment or research timeline. Planning/writing communications up front allows you to efficiently send and manage communication to larger segments of your target audience (e.g. people who opted-in for a specific study, screened or accepted participants, a whole target population, etc.).

A simplified example of our communication sequence for our tree testing research activity included:

  1. General Introduction and opt-in (email)
    • Who: Full target audience sample (email sent to all possible sample participants)
    • What: Communicate general information about our Website Redesign project, the value of user feedback/engagement, invite opt-in for further engagement
  2. Specific study invitation (email) 
    • Who: People who opted in as a result of our initial message, screened for a representative sample of our key audience, including advanced researchers (e.g. across academic disciplines, locations, roles, etc.)
    • What: Share value of study and the value of user participation, describe an appropriate incentive for participation and invite individuals to participate in study
  3. In-study messaging (study tool, e.g., Qualtrics, Optimalsort, etc.) 
    • Who: Study participants  
    • What: Clarify instructions for study/survey, and invite alternative forms of feedback and researcher contact information 
  4. Follow up (email)
    • Who: Study participants
    • What: Thank you message, incentives delivery and/or follow up message detailing changes/improvements made as a result of testing

Communication sequences can involve email or other communication channels like word of mouth, print announcements, announcements during meetings, sign up sheets, etc. The key for an effective communication sequence is to effectively plan and manage the content, channels and timing of each message so your audience feels understood, acknowledged and valued. 

I’d like to share some key points within an email communication sequence that I have commonly used as I carry out recruitment for in-person user research studies via email. Although the scope of your assessment or user research project may be very different, the principles for marketing and communication can be adapted to different contexts, media and communication channels.   

Email Subject Lines

The first and key part of an email sequence is the introductory opt-in email. Writing compelling copy for the subject line is a critical way to get your audience's attention. All caps is not necessary but the content of the subject line should capture their attention, make them want to read more and keep your invitation from being buried under 100 other emails for days. The subject line needs a hook, or in other words it needs to speak to what your target audience’s daily challenges and interests.

Here are some guidelines I found helpful for writing clear and effective subject lines:

  • Email is a relationship tool, so speak to a specific audience or user’s context and needs
  • Banish ambiguity; get right to the point of the message and let the recipient decide (e.g. Request for participation)
  • Keep it concise (under 50 characters), and use sentence case 

Increasing the number of target users who open your invitation email provides more opportunity to help people understand the value of your service/resource, and improves the likelihood of survey/study participation and future engagement.  

Message

An email recruitment message works best when it provides just enough information/story about the value of your offer (to participate in evaluation/assessment activities) to connect with your target audiences' desires. It’s also helpful to include the name of the mutual acquaintance (Library colleague, etc.) who referred you to this individual or audience. Personalize the message with your logistical information (e.g. flexible study/activity dates, audience and incentives) which helps your target audience feel like you’re speaking to them and that you value their input.  

Here are some good questions that can inform your recruitment message:

  • What does the moment look like when your target audience realizes that the service/resource you offer them is just what they need? 
  • How will what you offer be a solution to your target audiences challenge or desire? 
  • How does your service/resource change your target audience’s research life?    

A well written recruitment message is short, clear and convincing. It provides enough details to help people take the next action.  

Invitation

The invitation can be part of the message text that leads to a compelling call to action. A call to action consists of a link label with copy that guides your audience to take the next step and move toward participating in your user research or assessment activity. Compelling link titles lead with a verb and help a participant feel confident about where the link will lead: “Apply to participate in user research study” or “Start Survey to improve [product/service name]. 

I love using an opt-in survey to capture basic information (school or college, academic role, level of experience with the service/product being evaluated). I also like to include a question for volunteers to indicate whether they would like to opt-in to be invited to selected future studies or to keep updated about significant improvements/updates to our service/product. 

Followup

Follow up messages are a necessary part of a communication sequence for remote and in-person user research and assessment activities. I’ve used follow up emails to: 

  • Thank participants and show improvements made as a result of data collected from a study
  • Send reminders about online survey/activity participation before the study ends
  • Confirm study times and other details with selected user research participants
  • Provide alternative ways of providing feedback
  • Provide a way to opt-out of future invitations  

Follow up messages can demonstrate a commitment to customer service and a willingness to make user-centered improvements over time.  

Repeat and Adapt

The best part of an email sequence is that it can be adapted to communicate with multiple audiences or samples within a single study or it can serve as a template for different studies over time. Using audience-focused email subject lines, email messages, invitations/call to actions, and follow up messaging has helped me to improve the quality of recruitment communication across audiences and helped me reduce the time needed to launch new studies.  

Successful Outcomes

The most significant outcome of improved email marketing for user research and assessment activities has been an expanded awareness and engagement with Library products and services from audiences whose perspectives and experiences are often less known or represented. Taking an inclusive approach to recruitment and marketing of research and assessment activities helps researchers, content creators and developers identify and remove technical and content barriers that block people from interacting with Library content, collections and services. When these barriers are removed the overall experience improves for everyone.  

For the past several years, I have worked to build relationships and communication channels with administrative assistants and staff at the Office for Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) for the purpose of including students with disabilities in our research activities. These relationships have allowed me to send our email invitations for studies to an administrative assistant who forwards the invitation to existing email lists of Undergraduate and/or Graduate students. Our invitation includes a link to a brief survey where students provide basic information about their availability, their familiarity with the product or service we’re testing, and they can list any accommodations they would need to participate in our study. We can then screen our respondents to include a variety of disciplines and send follow up emails directly. 

By communicating with the SSD consistently, I have been able to conduct studies at multiple times of the year (including slow summer months) and to secure consistent participation for in-person and remote user research activities. Most importantly we actively develop and grow our relationships/credibility with SSD staff and students by inviting regular feedback and participation in user research and evaluative studies around Library digital products and services.  

Often the value of Library resources and services are communicated via word of mouth. This is one of the most coveted ways of marketing a product or service. Positive personal recommendations are more likely and frequent when we communicate regularly with and seek feedback from our audiences through regularly updated communication sequences. While tools and platforms and individual participants shift, our message content can adapt easily to these changes when we understand the current needs of our audience and the key partners and channels who can connect us to them most effectively.