Once called a respondent, now commonly referred to as a participant, often defined by any moniker derived from a persona. Some personas I have seen over the years have been so on point I occasionally refer to myself as a Beth or a Nigel when I catch myself behaving in a certain way.

It is also easy to refer to participants as users, after all they may be using your service, site, app.

“A rose by any other name” Shakespeare

A rose by any other name…

However, I believe there is a growing movement toward just calling these test subjects ‘people’. This belief has come from a number of conversations at conferences and local meetups.

The thinking behind this is that giving people a label like ‘participant’ is quite definitive and can be restrictive, just seeing them as someone participating in your research.

This movement links into a couple of things I have come across recently, firstly ‘holistic user profiling’ as written about by Peter Yeomans. This theory considers a person’s wider experience and the context with which you are looking at them in a research session.

From a (or should I say people) recruitment perspective this makes complete sense: I speak with such a broad mix of different people on a daily basis that it is often hard to think that all people can be defined by a persona.

What’s in a name?

The other thing that comes to mind is the Participant Needs research; the project to design research that better meets participant needs. Defining someone as a participant, someone who is there to participate in your research, could lead to an implicit assumption that they are happy to fit into your schedule and work around your research plan. Of course if there is a cash incentive on offer then this is usually a correct assumption, however research can benefit from a relaxed and comfortable participant who feels their needs have been heard.

An article I read recently on the Interaction Design Foundation website by Muriel Domingo used the term ‘co-creator’ when showing the evolution of language used to refer to customers or consumers. Domingo also explained that “your choice for words does affect and/or is a reflection of how you see the world”.

I am fully on board with this view and have expressed my opinion on the impact of implicit bias in user research and recruitment previously in this story.

As an industry, let’s move toward a more inclusive language and consider the impact on our own assumptions of using certain terms. Participant may be a useful label at times, but the people taking part in your research are more than just that.

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