7 terms to describe participants in a study
It’s interesting the wide range of what participants in a study are called. I’ve seen everything from consumers and users to subjects.
But what should we call them, and does it even matter?
“I do think it matters what we call them,” said Jenn Mancusi, chief revenue officer at Voxpopme. “After all, they are people, so I like to call them people because, after all, we are after human insights. ”
But not everyone calls research participants people, so let’s look at the wording options and examples of research participants.
Examples of research participants nomenclature
Participants in a study are called a variety of things, and I will discuss the most common examples here. (Do you call them something else? Email me!)
“The subjects in our study said they like xyz better than abc.”
That sounds super clinical to me. Maybe dehumanizing even. It certainly gets the point across that we are examining somebody’s actions and behaviors, but it’s not a relationship-building term.
This phrase particularly makes sense when we are actually talking about an online research community. The participants in the community would likely even call themselves community members. “I’m a community member of xyz because I love giving my favorite brand feedback and seeing what feedback others are offering.”
This is common in software or e-commerce. The consumers those companies care about are ultimately users of the website or the product. I’m a user of AI-content creation tools, for example. So when those companies talk to me, they might call that user research.
The term user, though, can also be a bit limiting as it silos consumers into only the user of the product, website, or service. After all, other things in their lives as people also affect them and their decisions.
“So the insights world has been talking for a while about this idea of understanding the person behind our consumer,” said Megan Kehr, consumer insights manager, NACP at PepsiCo, on an episode of the market research podcast “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” “So not just, for example, seeing someone like me as just a Pepsi drinker. While my consumption behavior is part of who I am, I’m also a wife, a sister. I’m a daughter; I’m a cat mom. You know, there are all these other aspects of my life outside of the beverages I consume that make up who I am.”
As Megan and Jenn said, participants in research studies are people, so why not just refer to them as such? That can also send a reminder that “yes, we want to understand the person.”
“The people that we surveyed about xyz responded that …”
“I wouldn’t call them consumers; I would call them people,” said Emmanuel Probst, Senior Vice President – Brand Health Tracking, at Ipsos, and author of “Assemblage: The Art and Science of Brand Transformation.” “People don’t wake up in the morning and go, ‘oh, I’m in the market for new blades to shave. Nobody thinks that.”
Some insights professionals call participants in studies consumers.
What is a consumer? In a nutshell, it’s anyone that is considering buying products and actually buys products. Consumers are people who are in the market to buy things.
Since researchers try to reach consumers, the term makes sense in this context.
The term consumer is also often used as a catch-all term for people that companies try to sell to. Consumers, just like people are multi-dimensional. They have different needs based on their current situation, and varying preferences and are in various stages of the customer journey.
Read next: How to create a consumer-first culture
Many brands interview and survey their customers so when it makes sense, we should call the respondents of our surveys customers. In other words, those are people who are already buying from our brand.
If nothing else, participants in a study can also just be called participants. What I do like about this terminology is that it’s inclusive. It doesn’t describe the person as a user or a subject but as a participant. That indicates that we want them to be included.
No matter what you call them, it’s important to have the right people participating to begin with.
“When I’m doing a focus group, I will reaffirm key demographics or psychographics are screening criteria with the participants just to make sure that they are, who they say they are,” said Jamin Brazil, managing director at Voxpopme.
Read next: How does data quality in research work?
As a final note, consider that whatever you do call them also signals how you feel about them. Participant, in my opinion, is way more inclusive and appreciative than subject, for example. Person or people certainly also works in many instances, and consumer can be a catch-all phrase.
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