Is that supposed to be a funnel? Well, at least it’s not a Powerpoint chart.

Buying funnel, user experience and a 111% increase in volunteer signups

How we adopted the buying funnel as a user experience tool, and what happened thus.

In many ways, making decisions about participating in research is similar to the process of shopping for a product or service. For example, volunteers seek to sign up for specific studies that seem most suited to their needs, just as shoppers seek to purchase a product or service that fits their needs. Thus, models of consumer behavior, such as the buying funnel, are highly relevant and easily adapted to help us consider potential volunteers’ thoughts and behaviors when recruiting for research studies.

What is a Buying Funnel?

The buying funnel (also known as a shopper’s funnel, sales funnel, or sales cycle) is a staged process that a consumer goes through in order to purchase a product or service. According to this model, consumers pass through four stages of cognition and action as they decide whether and what product or service to purchase. Specifically, consumers (1) become aware of products or services, (2) research their options, (3) make a decision, and (4) purchase one of the options.

In his work consulting with businesses through Google Ventures, Michael Margolis has adapted the buying funnel to be a user experience design tool for online stores. He proposes 6 general stages in this funnel for Web site design to enhance the user experience when purchasing a service or product:

  1. Discover: gather options and establish criteria — in this stage, customers try to determine what products are available, what their requirements and criteria are for the product they seek, and which sites are credible sources for information about the product.
  2. Select: make a short list — in this stage, customers choose a set of product options that meet their initial screening criteria.
  3. Dig in: drill into each product — in this stage, once customers consider a product worthy of consideration, they drill into the details to determine whether the product meets their criteria.
  4. Validate: find out what people are saying — in this stage, when customers are close to a purchase decision, they look for outside validation from other customers.
  5. Try: see what it is really like — in this stage, customers often want to try a product before they commit to help ensure it fits their habits, lifestyle, or the way they work.
  6. Buy: in this stage, customers finally purchase the product they were evaluating.

Variations of this funnel-like model have been evaluated with and applied to various paradigms including tourism, online keyword advertising, information-seeking, and cosmetics. We realized that it could also be readily applied to health research recruitment.

How did we apply it to UMHealthResearch?

To do so, we conducted user research to understand potential volunteers’ needs and thoughts in each stage of the buying funnel. In turn, this led to design insights. We realized that it was critical for UMHealthResearch to provide sufficient education about research participation, gain user trust, and provide volunteers with an easy way to search for studies when they are in the “Discover” stage. As volunteers move to the “Select” stage, they must be able to easily see relevant information for studies that fit their initial criteria to help them narrow down their options. When volunteers want to “Dig In” to study details, UMHealthResearch must quickly show them all the information they need to know in an organized fashion. For volunteers who want to learn what others think of the study, UMHealthResearch can create a method for social validation. Finally, when people are ready to volunteer, it should be quick and easy for them to show interest in the study they like and they should have a clear picture of what they need to do next. It is also ideal for the recruitment tool to connect the volunteer with other potential studies of interest to capitalize on their involvement and motivation. These insights helped us identify problems we needed to address to improve UMHealthResearch and create a more positive and active user experience.

And then what happened?

There has been a notable increase in the number of volunteers who have signed up after our redesign. In the years before the redesign (2007–2012), an average of 1844 new volunteer accounts were created every year. In the completed years after the redesign (2013–2016) the average improved to 3906 accounts — an increase of 111%.

So what?

In the right situation, and backed with sound user research, thinking about the user experience in terms of a buying funnel is an effective way of improving the user experience of your website.


This article is a condensed version of an open access paper we authored titled “Adapting the buying funnel model of consumer behavior to the design of an online health research recruitment tool”. For an in-depth understanding of the process, please refer to the paper.