User Research for Taxonomy Part 3: Find Your Users

The following is an excerpt from an ebook I wrote with Rachel Price, User Research for Taxonomy Design. We wrote it as a companion piece to a presentation we gave at Taxonomy Bootcamp 2016, because we think there’s a lack of good information out there about generative qualitative research for taxonomy. In our book, we break it down into simple steps so you can do your own research.

There’s no user research without users, so you have to find some people to talk to. It’s worth taking a moment to be strategic about it and make sure you’re getting the best participants for your study.

Who do you want to talk to?

After you know what you want to find out, you can decide what kinds of participants will be the most helpful. As you come up with your ideal kinds of participants, try to avoid getting too specific. Often, clients will come up with a wish list of demographics, behaviors, and buying patterns that is both difficult to find in a random sampling of the public and isn’t actually helpful, because it’s much narrower than their actual user base.
If you’re working on an external project, don’t limit it to current customers, but be sure include the kinds of people you’d like to be your customers, also. Why aren’t those people using your services or buying you products? You may learn a lot from them.
On internal projects, you don’t have to limit your pool to everyone to the same department or in the same roles. It can be useful to talk to someone who works with a tool regularly as well as someone who trains other people on it, and someone who just learned it.

How many participants?

Try for four, there’s really no need to do more than twelve. Two are better than nothing. One is dangerous, because it’s not really “user research” it’s just “Lisa,” and you don’t have enough data to show you patterns.

Finding the right people

Recruiting is the process of finding volunteers who want to be part of your study. This is the first step in identifying who you’re going to be speaking to. There are two basic ways to conduct recruiting: by doing it yourself, or hiring a third party to do it for you.

You can do it yourself

You can always try to do your own recruiting, but we recommend it if:

  • You’re doing a very small study, or
  • The participants are a captive audience, like your coworkers or your client’s employees.

If it’s a manageable number of people from an audience you can easily tap into directly, then doing your own recruiting is fine. Keep in mind that when you do your own recruiting, you have to:

  • Find and contact possible participants (If you’re doing an internal study of your co-workers, this will be easy. If you’re trying to find a particular type of Snake Person skateboarder to interview them about their skateboarding habits, this part might be hard.)
  • Determine their eligibility
  • Schedule a time for them to be interviewed
  • Follow up with them prior to the interview to confirm they will show up
  • Contact them if they don’t show up and reschedule them
  • Find new participants to replace the ones that didn’t show up (really, there’s always one)
  • If using, distribute gratuities to the participants after they complete their participation

You can certainly decide to do your own recruiting for a larger study, but be warned, it’s an entire project by itself. Unless you love spending hours scheduling interviews, juggling calendars, and managing gratuities for a large study, we recommend letting an expert recruiter do this legwork for you.

Or you can get professional help

We really recommend using a recruiter when:

  • You want to talk to more than five people
  • You have strict parameters for recruitment
  • You’re pulling from an audience you don’t have direct access to.

Recruiters come at a cost (typically, with a charge per participant, a flat project management fee, and a fee per participant to distribute the gratuity), but for a large study, they’re invaluable. They will email participants the night before to remind them to show up, call participants who don’t come to their appointment, and handle rescheduling them or finding new participants as needed. We also recommend having them mail out the gratuities, if you’re using them.


A screener is a set of questions that you use to find participants who are highly qualified for your study. You can use a screener to narrow in on demographic targets, audience segments, or particular use-cases. You can use a screener to limit to a very particular use-case, or to make sure that you equally fill a variety of use-cases. For example, in one study, we needed to talk to people who aren’t in a creative job role, but use software to create visual media sometimes. The screener helped us to narrow in on that very particular use-case.

When do you need a screener?

You should always use a screener, unless you can confidently say that anyone you recruited would make sense for the study. If you’re working on an internal project, you can probably rely on your own or the client’s knowledge of their own people to pick the best participants, with a bit of general guidance. For most external projects, you will want to use a screener to validate participants.

How to write a screener

Start out by deciding what characteristics would make someone a good participant. Write out these qualities and use them to construct simple questions. A screener is easiest to use when there’s no room for interpretation, so you’re looking for multiple-choice questions, not essays.
For an internal, or less formal project, you might just ask someone a few questions via email to make sure they’re the right participant, or check with a stakeholder to make sure that the participant actually manages content, uses the system in question, etc.