Effective Scheduling Strategies for Impactful User Research
Efficient and effective scheduling is a cornerstone of successful User Research. However, coordinating dates, times, and people can often feel like a jigsaw puzzle with constantly moving pieces.
In this guide, we share best practices for scheduling User Research sessions, how to reduce no-shows, and how a User Research CRM like Rally simplifies the headache from scheduling. Whether you’re conducting “rigorous research” or just having regular customer conversations, this guide aims to provide insights that will help streamline your scheduling process, making it easier to spend more time on what’s important — the research itself.
Who is involved in scheduling?
Scheduling User Research sessions typically involves 2-4 “roles”: the scheduler, the moderator, the participant, and observers.
No two User Research teams are the same. For some teams, the scheduler and the moderator are the same, meaning the researcher is scheduling their own sessions along with sessions for cross-functional partners in Design and Product. For other teams, the scheduler is a Research Ops professional.
Agustina Di Clemente, UX Research Ops Specialist at TravelPerk, is the only Research Ops (ReOps) on her team of over 30 Researchers, Designers, and Product Managers, and is responsible for coordinating and scheduling all User Research sessions.
A different example is Taylor Jennings, Lead UX Researcher at Chili Piper, who as a team of one mostly schedules for herself, though she occasionally will schedule sessions that include a Product Manager or Designer.
In optimizing scheduling for User Research, it’s crucial to factor in the experiences of every person involved, including their unique contexts. A key aspect to consider while scheduling is the time zones of participants.
For instance, you might be dealing with a scenario where three Moderators (or Hosts) and a Participant are each operating in different time zones. In this complex situation, it's not just about finding a mutually convenient time; you also need to consider when your participants are most likely to be at their best for the interview. Therefore, understanding the local work hours, national holidays, and other significant timings for each participant will significantly enhance the efficiency of your scheduling process.
What are the steps involved in scheduling research sessions?
Most of the tasks involved in scheduling User Research sessions are universal and these steps should reflect a standard scheduling process. There will be deviations based on your teams’ unique situation, goals, and needs.
1. Creating your research calendar.
Before your scheduling process can begin, it’s crucial to have a clear understanding of who is involved and how they should be involved, the scheduling type, and the timeline of the study. Clarifying these details will ensure that when participants start booking with you, you are 100% ready. As the scheduler, you might be required to define these objectives, or you might need to initiate a discussion with someone else (e.g. you are Research Ops and need the researcher to share the important details mentioned above).
Who should be involved?
- Scheduler — This person orchestrates the scheduling of interviews and might not necessarily be present during the actual research session. Example: Research Ops Specialist
- Moderator/Host — This person leads the interview, and their availability takes precedence over Observers. While they're often researchers, non-researchers like PMs or Designers can also play the role of a moderator. Example: User Researcher
- Participant — This person is by far the most crucial in the process, and their availability is of utmost priority. Example: Customer/User
- Observer — This role is usually optional. They are often invited to an interview regardless of their availability. Observers can include cross-functional partners in Product and Design, stakeholders, Research leadership, or other researchers. Example: Product Manager or Design Lead
Now, it's time to outline the date range for the study and determine the type of scheduling that best suits the interview. Here are three common scheduling types:
- Standard 1:1 — A participant books a meeting with a single team member (Host).
- Collective — A participant books a meeting with multiple team members (Host) at one time.
- Round Robin — A participant can book a meeting with any available team member (Host).
Though Agustina’s team typically focuses on 1:1 sessions, they have the flexibility to arrange round robin sessions. Round robin sessions can be advantageous for teams aiming to evenly distribute interviews. This style of scheduling can help distribute the workload and allow for greater scheduling flexibility for both your team and participants.
2. Identify, recruit, and screen participants.
Along with outlining the research objectives and timelines, it's crucial to assess the complexity of the recruitment process, which could be influenced by factors such as the timeline and the specific type of user needed. Another key aspect to consider is the degree of flexibility the hosts can offer to participants. A high level of flexibility can potentially increase the chances of securing the right type and number of participants. Additionally, when more hosts are involved, there are typically more options for participants. Your scheduling process should seamlessly fit into your recruitment process. Within Rally, you can optimize both your scheduling and recruitment.
3. Determine availability of your participants.
Once you have users that are screened and qualified to participate, it’s time to find out when they are available. Ideally, you should send them a scheduling link that allows them to pick a time from a shared calendar, which then automatically populates into the participants calendar along with those who will be joining the session.
4. Send confirmation, reminders, and follow-ups.
Communicating with your participants will greatly help reduce no-shows and clear up any confusion. Within Rally, you can automate and personalize important communication like confirmation, reminder, and follow-up emails.
5. Reschedule, if needed.
Some participants won’t be able to make it or may forget about the session, an important step of this process is to have a clear plan in place for handling no-shows. A tool like Rally can make the rescheduling process simple and painless for both you and the participant.
How to coordinate scheduling as a team
A major headache with scheduling is coordinating as a team. Since multiple people are often involved in each research session, the person scheduling has to juggle multiple calendars and even time zones.
There are a few things you can do to help ease the pain:
- Adopt a tool that centralizes scheduling (👋 Rally — more on this below)
- Define roles and responsibilities — who is responsible for scheduling the sessions, who needs to be involved, etc.
- Understand the goals and details of the research session — scheduling type, purpose, session length, desired timeline and frequency of sessions, etc.
- Ensure that every person involved clearly communicates their availability, calendar preferences, and considerations regarding time zones.
- Keep open and prompt communication with all parties throughout the entire process.
Rally’s Team Scheduling removes the headache.
💥 Connect your calendar app — Zoom, Google Meet, Office 365, etc.
Every team member involved in the research session should connect their account, which will keep their availability accurate and updated.
💥 Choose a scheduling type (standard 1:1, round robin, or collective).
💥 Set Hosts and Guests. Hosts are typically mandatory members of a session (unless you are scheduling Round Robin), whereas Guests are added to an interview regardless of their availability and considered optional. Available session slots will be determined based on the Host(s) availability.
💥 Choose a fixed date range or rolling date range. A rolling date range is best for continuous research that you want to constantly be recruiting participants for. A fixed date range is more useful for doing targeted research on a specific topic within a specific time range.
💥 Choose between two availability styles.
- Common schedule for all hosts. (Best for smaller research teams or situations where 1-2 people are doing research and there is little variation in schedules. Ex: You want to always conduct research Wednesday and Thursdays from 1-6 pm.)
- Individual availability for each host. (Best for larger teams or teams that include multiple timezones. Each person inputs their own schedule and Rally figures out what time slots work best based on the selected scheduling type and hosts.)
💥 Determine how to handle meeting conflicts. This feature in Rally lets Participants schedule while automatically handling meeting conflicts for you. You can choose to:
- Protect the existing meetings on your calendar
- Protect some meetings
- Give participants your maximum availability and let them book over all your meetings
💥 Set booking limits — daily interview limits, start time increments, minimum booking notice, buffer time, etc.
Communicating with participants
Every communication with participants and users is important and can leave a lasting and big impression. In every type of communication you send, make sure to establish credibility, build trust, encourage participation, and personalize. We dive more into how to accomplish this in our comprehensive guide to email strategies in User Research. Below are three times when you’ll communicate with participants for scheduling.
1. Reach out to schedule a session
Now that you have some users who are ready to participate in User Research, it’s time to schedule their sessions. Along with providing scheduling details, this email will also usually be confirming that the user passed a screener or qualifies for research. When reaching out to a participant with an invitation to book a time, here are a few important things to consider:
- Share and re-share essential details about the session such as purpose, length, etc. Though much of this information will have already been shared with the participant, it doesn’t hurt to repeat it. Clear information reduces confusion and can reduce no-shows or cancellations.
- Communicate in a way that’s considerate of your participant’s time. There is such thing as too much information. Don’t overload users with unnecessary information. Your goal is to make it easy for them to agree to participate.
- Personalization can go a long way. Use the participant's name and try to customize the message as much as possible.
- Make it easy to respond. Provide a clear way for participants to respond to your invite or ask any questions they might have. An easy way to do this is make sure the CTA is clear and visible. And when participants reach out, prioritize responding in a prompt and professional way.
- Send invitations during working hours. Be aware of the time zone of your users. Agustina, whose team is located in Spain, makes a point of sending emails to U.S. users during their working hours, not Spain’s working hours. “This way, we increase the chance of our invitations standing out and not getting lost in their inboxes,” she said.
2. Send meeting confirmation
Once a participant agrees to join a session, you should send them a calendar invite or a confirmation email (some tools, like Rally, do this automatically for you). This should include the date, time, time zone, and other necessary details such as the platform you'll be using or the meeting link. In this email, provide a clear way to reschedule or cancel the session.
Even if the session is automatically confirmed and added to each party’s calendar, it doesn’t hurt to still send a personal confirmation email a day or two before the scheduled session. This not only serves as a reminder but also is an opportunity for the participant to reschedule if needed, rather than no-show.
3. Send reminders and follow-ups
Reminder emails and follow-ups can play a major role in reducing no-shows. Send a reminder to your participants a day or two before the scheduled session, though the frequency and amount of reminders will vary. Ideally, these emails will be automated, something you can quickly set up in Rally.
Here are some tips for reminder and follow-up emails, for a deeper dive, check out our comprehensive guide to research recruitment email strategies:
- Communicate ahead of time when you’ll send reminders. Let the participant know ahead of time when and how to expect reminders.
- Ask your participant’s preference. If possible, allow the participant to indicate a preferred mode for reminders (e.g. email, SMS text, etc.)
- Keep reminder email consistent with other communication. If all the communication to the participant has been coming from one specific person, make sure any reminders of follow-ups come from that same person. Along with including branding, this makes your emails recognizable and more likely to be opened.
- Keep It Simple and Straightforward (KISS 😘).Reminders should be brief but clear. Restate the purpose of the research, the time of the session, and any preparations the participant needs to make. This will increase the chance of your participant showing up for the session and coming prepared.
The Big Bad Wolves of Scheduling: No-Shows & Cancellations 🐺🐺
“Cancelations and no-shows will always happen, no matter what,” said Agustina. “Even with the most effective strategies in place to minimize them, there will still be instances where they occur.”
While Agustina is right, there are still effective strategies that can mitigate the negative effects to your research, timeline, and goals. We’ll cover some tips for dealing with no-shows and cancellations, how to plan ahead, and what you can do to hopefully (🤞) prevent them.
How to deal with no-shows and cancellations
“Always expect last-minute changes,” said Agustina. “Being patient and flexible is key, and it’s vital to convey this mindset to the team as well. Ultimately, we are engaging with our customers, who generously dedicate their time to collaborate with us, and it’s important to understand that participating is not their primary responsibility.”
Along with keeping this mindset, there are a few things you can do that can ease the pain of no-shows, cancellations, and other last-minute changes and make them less disruptive to your research:
- Plan ahead and over-recruit.
- Offer ample opportunities to confirm attendance, reschedule, or cancel.
- Communicate promptly at all times.
- Choose the right tool (👋 Rally)
How to plan ahead for no-shows
There are plenty of ways to physically prepare for no-shows, but it's also important to mentally prepare. As Taylor shared, "I've learned to be comfortable with hiccups in research and knowing that not everything is going to be perfect. Sure, it's frustrating when someone cancels or no-shows and then ghosts you — but at the end of the day, I never know what else that person has going on that's causing them to do that,” she continued. “I try to remember that while it's my job to conduct research and talk to my participants, each one of them has their own job and life that they're focused on and sometimes that takes precedence over what I need them for. Rather than letting it frustrate me or take it personally, I remind myself that they're human too and all I can do is try to reschedule, find a replacement for them, or move forward another way."
No-shows can be disheartening and disappointing. Give your participants the benefit of the doubt. Being physically prepared can also lessen the mental strain and annoyance you may feel when a participant doesn't show up. Here are a few ways to plan ahead for no-shows:
- Over-recruit. We know this is often easier said than done, but recruiting 2-4 more participants than your needed amount can provide a nice buffer. And if the extra participants also respond positively, it rarely hurts to do more research. And if you genuinely can’t use them, make sure to communicate your gratitude and try to find another way to utilize their interest and desire in participating. Nielsen Norman Group breaks down this concept of backup or “floater” participants well and provides situations where recruiting floaters is most beneficial.
- Create an email template for no-shows. A templated email can save you a lot of time, and having an email ready to send to no-shows can improve the chances of rescheduling in a timely manner. In your email to no-shows, include a rescheduling link and an easy opt-out option if the user is no longer interested in participating.
- Follow-up with no-shows and give them a second chance to reschedule. You never know the reason someone no-shows. Following up quickly may give you more insight into why and may also result in a quick rescheduling. “I usually give participants 5 minutes before reaching out. After that I'll send them an email and wait 5-10 more minutes depending on the session length,” said Taylor. “If they still haven't joined at that point, I'll send another message with a rescheduling link asking them to schedule another time.”
- Consider the unique situations of your participant. “Be conscious of the timing of your study,” said Taylor, who conducts the majority of her research with those in Customer Support or Sales roles. “I know that I'll have less interest or attendance if it's the end of month or end of quarter, so I try to avoid getting too close to points in time that I know they'll be incredibly busy,” she said. “Know their target audience and expect that there's certain times that aren't great for asking them to participate in research. For example, if your participants are large retailers, maybe don't ask them to do research from mid-November through early December (or anticipate they'll be busier than usual then and add some buffer to your study).”
The No-show Checklist
If we could, we’d lift our magic wand and zap no-shows permanently away. 🪄 Unfortunately, we’re not that magical. Use this helpful checklist to ensure reduce the likelihood of no-shows.
✔️ Ensure all calendars are completely up to date.
✔️ Provide a wide range of time slots that aren’t too far in advance (ideally offer times within the next week).
✔️ Share important technology or troubleshooting instructions to ease potential concerns.
✔️ Include essential details such as session length, incentive amount (if any), and meeting platform in your emails to participants.
✔️ Prepare an abbreviated script and know what to do if you’re short on time in the case that a participant shows up late.
✔️ Schedule reminder emails with an RSVP option to allow participants to confirm their attendance in advance (consider setting up reminders that require confirmation 1 day before, 1 hour before, and 15 minutes before).
✔️ Include a rescheduling link in all your email communications.
✔️ Use personalization tokens and attach the research to a real name and face to build a personal connection with the participant.
How this works in Rally:
Rally can help you mitigate no-shows and try out some of the strategies mentioned above.
Build automatic reminders to participants.
Within Rally’s study builder, you can create automated confirmation and reminder emails with the link to reschedule and cancel the interview automatically built into the body. Additionally, you can choose to make these reminders branded or plain text.
Ensure up-to-date calendars.
Using Rally’s scheduling calendar, hosts can connect their calendars and set their availability. Depending on the scheduling type and your unique research needs, you can determine availability based on each individual host or create a common schedule.
Send branded, personalized communication.
Upload your brand kit to send messages that your participants can trust come from real sources. Easily input personalization tokens to both new and templated emails so you don’t have to sacrifice that important personal touch for an optimized and automated process.
Throughout the scheduling process, it's crucial to ensure your participants feel empowered and have the ability to reschedule at any time. As Agustina stated, "Provide participants with convenient options to reschedule their calls swiftly, ideally as close to the original date as possible." This practice can help prevent project delays.
In terms of rescheduling, it's advisable to ask for a specific notice period. Taylor believes that a 1-2 days notice is ideal, although she has had instances of participants rescheduling just 30 minutes before a session. "Generally, I strive to accommodate rescheduling as much as possible to show my appreciation for their effort in rescheduling rather than ghosting or cancelling outright," she said.
If you're on a tight project deadline and need to reschedule a session, Agustina recommends coordinating directly with the research owner. "This will allow for suitable adjustments to deadlines, ensuring the session's inclusion.
How to handle meeting conflicts on your calendar
"At the end of the day, my job is to bring insights to the team based on what I learn through research. Therefore, User Research sessions take priority over everything else on my calendar, with very few exceptions," said Taylor.
When there is an internal conflict with a session, Taylor will reach out directly to the person who scheduled the conflicting meeting and explain why she can't attend. "If they're unable to reschedule the meeting, I ask them to record it so I can watch it later. That's because I'm unwilling to reschedule my session with a participant unless it's absolutely necessary."
For non-researchers or anyone in an observer role, Taylor recommends prioritizing attendance at research sessions as much as possible. "Hearing from participants first-hand is the single best way to foster empathy for your users or prospective users," said Taylor. "Watching a recorded session doesn't always elicit the same response."
Taylor suggests that anyone in an observer role should loop in their manager. It's crucial to inform them that you might need to prioritize the sessions you're observing over all hands or weekly team training. "If possible, try to get recordings of the meetings you'll miss in favor of attending user research sessions," she added. "If you have to miss the live session, I highly recommend prioritizing watching the recording — distraction-free. Mute Slack / Teams, refrain from checking your email, take notes, and remain fully present while watching the recording."
Scheduling with an international team
Balancing time zones is a headache and a reality of working with an international team or international participants. Trying to schedule research sessions across multiple time zones is often difficult and time-consuming. Even when you think you’ve found a few time slot options, you still can’t help but second-guess.
For international teams dealing with varying time zones, adopting an effective scheduling method is crucial. Round robin scheduling can be particularly beneficial. This approach allows individual team members to share their own availability, which participants can then select from. It provides more options and flexibility for both the research team and the participants, making it easier to coordinate across multiple time zones.
Additionally, calendar tools can help alleviate the stress and pain of balancing time zones when scheduling. But instead of adding another tool to your tool stack, it’s better to choose one built specifically for User Research. Rally’s User Research CRM enables seamless team scheduling — especially for international teams. Here’s how it works:
Each person directly involved in the session (within Rally, these would be “hosts” not “guests”) will set their personal schedules within Rally. Once schedules are set, Rally displays the available time slots that work for everyones schedules
Schedule with the user in mind
In everything you do, keep “participant comfort as the topmost priority,” said Agustina. Keeping the Participant Experience in mind while you build and refine your Participant Management and Recruitment processes like scheduling will help you build both delightful and efficient strategies.