• User Research

12th Sep 2012

6 min

When selecting participants for customer research projects or evaluating and categorising their responses, there are a number of questions that arise. Should you select and group participants based on the age or gender of your target audience? Or perhaps based on their previous purchases or contact? Or even based on their character traits? There are a wide range of factors that need to be considered and we’ll address a few of these in this post, highlighting the strength and weakness of each approach.

Successful selection and grouping of participants is founded on having a segmented view of your audience. Going back to basics, segmentation is key to getting the best value out of customer research and making sure that marketing efforts reach the right people. Careful planning up front can save you money and improve ROI’s.


Selecting and grouping participants based on the demographics (e.g. gender, race, age, location) is often the most straightforward approach. It has some very obvious applications, for example, a women’s clothing brand will get more useful insight using female participants. Age can also be useful if your customers are clearly defined or perhaps if you were looking to target a new, younger or older audience. Age tends to impact a range of factors such as disposable income available, taste, amount of time available, etc. However, we find that the importance of is often overplayed and participants do not fit into the neat stereotypes that we anticipate. For example, when we found recently that some teens had greater than expected spending power because their parents were willing to make the payments. In summary, demographics can be a great starting place and can filter out less useful participants, but as we’ll see. Stop here and you’re missing a trick.

We also find that it really depends on your research objectives as to how specific your participants need to match you target audience. For matters of persuasion and taste, it tends to be important, but if you are looking to test the usability and intuitiveness of your website, using participants outside of your target audience might not be a bad thing. For example, using a less technically savvy profile (e.g. 60+, beginner or mid-level web users) may highlight areas of your user experience that are unclear and could be improved.


  • Quickly filter out participants that are wildly different to your target audience.
  • If you have a change in strategy and want to target a new audience. For example, a younger or older audience, or when adding a new line of products for men/women if they are not your traditional audience.


  • If the demographics restrictions are too strict, then you can filter out a lot of participants who might provide useful insight. This can make it difficult to recruit the required number of participants.
  • Easy to filter out useful participants who fall just outside often slightly arbitrary age ranges.


Another way to select and group participants is to find an activity or form of behaviour that makes them more relevant. Previous online experiences may be valuable, for example, you may want to only select visitors who are new to the website to get their first impressions and observe them learning how to use the site. Alternatively, after a new release or set of changes, it might be helpful to get the views of returning customers or power users who understand the proposition clearly and can give an educated verdict on the changes or mention any remaining bugbears.

It is also worth considering offline behaviour. A sports retailer may want to attract competitive athletes and could therefore include a qualifying question such as:

I train at least 4 times a week and compete at national championships. Yes/No.

This allows you to be more specific about the type of participant that you select and will provide evidence to build depth into your marketing segments.

As well as setting narrow fields like the example above, you could also use a qualifying question to filter out negative behaviours, for example:

I have shopped, or would consider shopping online. Yes/No


  • Allows you to select more tightly focused, highly relevant participants
  • Can filter out less relevant participants
  • Can help to include demographic information in web personas to bring them to life and make them more believable.


  • Depending on your recruitment method, qualifying questions may increase the cost of recruitment.
  • If the qualifying question is too specific, it may be challenging to recruit the required number of testers and they may need to be relaxed.


One of the challenging factors that the previous two methods don’t accurately account for is less concrete characteristics, such as a participant’s personality. Do they want every possible detail or simply to be delighted by an exciting experience? Will they respond best a personable experience with social proof or are they more task driven, looking for simplicity and efficiency? What drives their buying decisions and what journey or content will improve the experience for them? These factors will vary greatly amongst website users and types of website. A

Developing a set of web personas and using these to guide your participant selection and future marketing efforts can be a great way of refining your target audiences beyond simple stereotypes.


  • Allows you to be more specific in grouping users and
  • Helps you understand user’s decision making processes


  • Can be difficult to recruit based on personality


The reality is that in order to get the most out of customer research, it’s best to be equipped with a full toolkit of demographic, behavioural and personality based filters. Whether optimizing an existing website, redesigning or planning new marketing campaigns carefully constructed segments, research participants and web personas are a really powerful tool. In most cases a mixture of all three approaches may be applicable and if you have always selected participants and group the findings by demographic filters, we strongly recommend investigating whether behavioural and personality based approaches could improve your website and campaigns.

If you have any relevant experiences please share them in the comments. Thanks!

Note: The video here from Eric Holtzclaw, CEO of Insight, started a conversation between Paul & myself that lead to this post. Eric talks about the death of traditional demographics, a person’s “persona DNA,” and how you can view your potential customers with a better perspective.

Comments are closed.