Making first contact for qualitative user research

So, you have a question that you think can be solved using some qualitative user research. You email a bunch of people, and nobody replies. Tumbleweed.

Here are my tips for avoiding who-the-frack-is-this-person-itis (aka people scratching their head at your email and never responding).

Understanding the problem

The biggest rookie mistake I ever made, and that I see people making all the time, is reaching out "for a chat" in the hopes that inspiration or an answer to a question will come out of it from nowhere. Unless you're in the business of relationship building, this kind of outreach is unlikely to yield results for a researcher, or benefits for your subject.

Before you embark on any conversations with customers/users, have a very clear understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. If you can't answer the following questions, you're probably not ready for a conversation:

  • What is the problem?
  • Who does it affect?
  • Who shouldn't it affect?
  • Why is it important?
  • What outcome do we want to see?

Target your audience

Avoid a scattergun approach. Emailing everyone on your customer list isn't going to be a great use of your time (or theirs), so use the answers to the questions in the last section to draw up a list of people you want to speak to. Make sure it contains people from your impacted group, as well as people you assume will not be impacted. This helps to validate your assumptions and approach.

Once you have that list, do two things:

  1. Check that list against your marketing 'do not mail' list. I know you're not doing email marketing here, but people will often interpret it that way. I'd remove these people from the target group, unless there's a great reason to include them.
  2. If you have account/relationship managers, run the list by them.
    • Remove people from the list if they're taking part in contract negotiations or are having a rocky time. You don't want frustrations from that leaking into your analysis, or worse, you ending up getting involved.
    • Ask whether the account managers would be willing to make an introduction, and save the yeses for later (read on!).

Getting in touch

By now, you should have two groups of target subjects. People who you can be introduced to, and people you will have to cold mail.

Warm intros

These are gold. If I were to guess, out of 10 warm introductions from an account manager, I probably get eight or nine conversations with customers. Work through your warm intros first, because you'll learn a lot about your methodology and you'll grow your understanding of the problem, perhaps even re-evaluating it.

There are some things to watch out for, though.

  • Avoiding bias is key. Before your friendly matchmaker makes the introduction, spend time with them explaining the dos and don'ts of the introduction. Help them understand how to avoid making leading comments or setting incorrect expectations.
  • Warm introductions have an air of informality to them. Make sure that when you speak with your subject, that the scope of your discussion is clear. They're probably used to speaking with people from your company, and almost always want to ask unrelated questions. That's fine, but they need to understand that you may not be the person to help them out.
  • Ask if it's ok to record the discussion. Having a recording to look back on is useful for you, and potentially to others later.

Going in cold

The trick is to never directly email someone completely cold, so my advice here is all about warming things up a little.

I remember (on more than one occasion) emailing people directly, from my work email account, introducing myself and trying to set up qualitative research sessions. It didn't work out super well. Over the years, I hit upon a workflow that works for me:

  1. Ask your friends in Marketing to send out a properly branded email to your target customers, which includes a very brief summary of what you want to talk about, why they should care (this is important), and a short bio, including a photo of yourself. Say that you'll be reaching out directly to them in the coming days. Doing this gives you authenticity, and the bio/photo warms them up to you.
  2. A couple of days later, email your subjects, referencing the email that was sent before. Add some more colour to what you want to talk about, and give them a clear call to action to take part.
  3. Use a service like You Can Book Me to make it easy for them to schedule time. Having a back and forth trying to find a slot is often a barrier to people wanting to take part.
  4. If they don't want to take part in an interview, perhaps have a very short survey prepared and offer them that instead. A little data on key points is better than none at all, given the effort that you have put in to segmenting your target group.

Following up

Don't let the interview be the end of your relationship with your subject. The conversation you had is valuable.

  • When you finish your research, email your subjects again and share some of the things you learned, if that's appropriate. They'll feel involved, and will be more inclined to take part again in future.
  • Share the recordings you made with others in your organisation, also if that's appropriate.
  • Keep a running record of who has participated in which research. You don't want to burn people out with interview fatigue and taking advantage of their good nature.

Your tips

I'd love to hear your feedback on this post, and to hear about how you reach out to people for the first time. Take a moment to share your thoughts in the comments!