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Panels & user groups

Getting started

  • Before you start think about your purpose. Why do you want to set up a panel? Who would you like to be involved? How you will use it?
  • Manage expectations. Be clear with the participants from the start. Make sure you share why you want to set up a panel, and what participating in it might mean both in terms of time commitment, and in what ways their input will inform what you do
  • Plan varied activities. You might want to use survey techniques – but make sure you also offer other ways for participants to express their views
  • Ensure you can capture the feedback of the panel members and that you are clear how you are going to use their input. Think about how you will present the results back to the participants
  • Does the group involve a diverse range of people? Think about how you can ensure that you encourage involvement from a range of people, and think about groups that might help you do this
  • Remember that participation in a group like this means that your participants may well become more knowledgeable about a topic than people who are outside of the group. Think about how this might impact the work you do together – and whether you will replace panel members regularly

Two methodologies are highlighted below:

User groups

User groups are meetings of users of services or new devices who, for example, share their views on their experiences, expectations and needs. A user group could be used to:

  • Gauge the views of staff and student users of university services
  • Explore with local residents the impact of the university
  • Test people’s reaction to changes or generate ideas for improvement

Usually a user group is organised in the form of a workshop [link to Interactive discussion methods]. It tends to work well with small groups of people – to allow interaction between the participants, and ensure everyone has a chance to contribute their views. Between 8 and 12 is a good number. You could recruit a large pool of users and draw out smaller groups to be consulted on a particular issue. User groups can be involved in a one-off event or for an ongoing process of consultation.

Citizen panels

Citizen Panels aim to be a representative consultative body of local residents and tend to be used to identify local priorities. They can be very helpful where communities are affected by a department or university, through for example parking issues, student accommodation or concerns about biological waste hazards. If used more widely than at the local level they could also be useful for developing an understanding and receiving feedback on broad, controversial research agendas.

Potential participants are normally recruited by random sampling, or door to door recruitment. Panel membership should be broadly representative of the population. Consider issues like age, gender, ethnic origin and disability. You will present the participants with a rolling programme of activities, typically involving surveys and, where appropriate, further in-depth research such as focus groups and workshops. [link to Interactive discussion formats]. Panel members usually stay on a panel 2-3 years, allowing the tracking of opinion over time. Citizen panels can range in size from a few hundred to several thousand people. Generally, citizens’ panels can achieve high response rates.

What they can be used for

You can use panels and user groups to:

  • Get regular feedback on university services.
  • Identify concerns and priorities of people on controversial research, especially from those who are not usually heard.
  • Provide a sounding board for new approaches.
  • Engage in a continuing dialogue with user communities using a new technology.

Things to bear in mind

  • Panel members give up a lot of time to participate. Make sure you think about their expectations and needs, and keep them informed
  • What are you expecting of each panel member? How often are they required to meet? Can they choose how they want to get involved? Are you making it easy for them to participate. You will need to consider access, timings of meetings, child care provision etc.
  • Are you using a panel as the only way of getting user feedback? Keep in mind however hard you try panels are rarely representative because of the commitment they require from participants; additional forms of consultation might be useful to complement them.
  • How are you going to recruit your panel members? You could advertise in the press, or reach participants through the people who work with them. Think about ways to ensure the recruitment of socially excluded or hard to reach groups.
  • Do you have adequate resources? There can be considerable costs involved in running and maintaining a panel. They require significant resources in terms of time, skills and money.
  • How do you avoid respondent fatigue? Have you designed an interesting rolling programme? Think through how you can motivate and involve panel members without exhausting their interest.

Cost and time requirements

Example costs

Running a panel can cost anything from £5,000 to well over £30,000. Costs vary depending on the methods in which the panel members are consulted, the frequency of consulting, the size of the group, the number of meetings and how often membership is renewed.

Normally panel members receive their expenses. Arranging free transport to and from meetings can be appropriate, especially if the panel members are the elderly or have disabilities. Once established however, the cost of a panel can be lower than the cost of ad-hoc research.

It may be appropriate to share the panel with other organisations or a different group at the university, enabling your costs to be reduced as well as ensuring panel members have an opportunity to participate in a variety of topics.

Example timings

Time the planning process takes

This depends on how many people you want to recruit, the type of research and consultation activities you include, how often you want to meet. You need to take time for recruitment, setting up a rolling programme of research and consultation, design surveys, book venues, develop a database to manage the feedback. Initial planning would need a minimum of three months. Don’t forget research and setting up databases requires considering legal and ethical frameworks, for example data protection. This is especially important when your panel includes people under 18 and vulnerable groups.

Staff time needed

Running panels can be quite time consuming. You will need to allocate time to plan and follow-up each panel meeting, keep in contact with panel members regularly, and vary the approach. Bear in mind these are long term processes running over several years. You also need to factor in time to provide support, keep the panel database up to date, recruit new participants and analyse the consultations.