Spotting a ringer

David Hamill
6 min readMar 7, 2017

Sometimes when you’re carrying out user research, the people you talk to won’t always be who they say they are. You’ll get the odd ringer who makes it past screening or even attends the session pretending to be one of their friends who is the actual person you want to speak to.

There’s no guaranteed way of spotting the person isn’t who they say they are, but I thought I’d write this post to share some tendencies I’ve found in participants I’ve identified as having been ringers. In the years I’ve been doing user research I like to think I’ve learned a bit about reading people’s behaviour and one of those things is an ability to spot ringers when those around me don’t necessarily see it.

If you see two or more of the signs I’ve listed here I suggest you dig a little deeper and exclude the participant from your analysis if you suspect they aren’t who they say they are.

Why it happens at all

There are two situations which can lead to you getting a ringer rather than the person you’re after.

The first is that people pretend to be someone they are not in order to get the incentive. They trick the process in order to be selected. There are various tricks they can use to do this. Sometimes they just come in place of a friend who is the real target user but doesn’t fancy coming.

The other situation is when the recruiter is desperate and decides to cut a few corners in order to get their fee. I stop using recruiters who do this immediately and suggest you do the same.

Being late

I never run focus groups, but the serial research participant has learned that turning up a bit late can make life easier for them. Market researchers often over-recruit for focus groups, so they start the session without delay. As soon as they have enough people for the group, they will start the session and then the last participants to turn up will simply be given their incentive and told they are free to go. If the serial research participant is a little late they can increase their chances of being that person.

Ringers are quite often late. Legitimate participants are as well of course. None of these things are exclusive to ringers.

Name-dropping your recruiter

At the start of a session I tend to ask how much the participant knows about the session. It doesn’t really change what I tell them about it, but it’s a nice way to start the conversation. Participants who are known to the recruiter, perhaps because they are a neighbour or a family friend, will sometimes let their mouths run away at this point and tell you more than the recruiter would have liked.

Familiarity with the recruiter can be a sign they are actually a ringer. For some researchers this familiarity is reason enough to exclude them altogether. But I like to think I’m more pragmatic than this. I’m actually less interested in the recruiters’ code of professional conduct at this point, if the person is a fit then they are a fit. But if they talk in terms which suggest they know the recruiter then look out for some of the other tells in this post.

My favourite tale of devious recruiter behaviour was when a ‘ex-pat Italian’ turned up for some usability testing a friend of mine was running. His Italian accent was very reminiscent of Sean Connery’s portrayal of a The Spaniard in The Highlander in that he was very obviously Scottish without making any attempt to adopt an accent. The recruiter had asked him to put on an Italian accent and he had simply forgotten to do so.

The convoluted backstory

The strongest giveaway sign for me is the complicated backstory. I’m immediately suspicious when the back story starts getting complex. When it is a fabrication it will often be offered up to you very early, sometimes before you’ve even asked them a relevant question.

It will often be explained in its entirety despite you asking a fairly straight-forward question which only required a simple answer. Next thing you know, you’re hearing about a complicated string of events which led to them just so happening to meet your recruitment criteria.

They’ve been rehearsing this back story in their head and it’s stressing them out. Your innocent questions feel like an interrogation and they are trying to justify their inclusion in the research.

They need to offload this story as soon as possible and this is why they dump the entire thing on you.

One memorable example I had was a woman who claimed to regularly book car-hire at airports, in her own name, using her own credit card, despite being unable to drive. Of course this was the criteria I was recruiting on and the sequence of events she used to explain this was very difficult to believe.

If her version of events was true it would have led to horrendous complications at the airport the first time she tried to pick up a car.


This happened to me only once but I found it funny, and it leads into my next point. I was expecting to receive a man called (something like) Adam and as I said “Hi Adam” a few times at reception, he looked blankly at the wall. He soon realised I was talking to him and said his name was (something like) Colin. I explained I was expecting to speak to someone called Adam and he replied “Oh yeah I am Adam, Colin is my nickname”

There was an uncomfortable moment in the extremely slow moving lift where a deeply unfeasible story was given to support this unlikely nickname, but not the fact that he fails to respond to his real name. It felt a bit like an episode of Blackadder.

In my experience friends give other friends insulting and demeaning nicknames or they simply use their surname. Nicknames which reflect positively on the person have usually been self-assigned or given to people everyone is trying to kiss up to. Nobody gives anybody a bland nickname without there being an amusing story behind it.

Flippant decisions

“Colin” was helping me test out an online share dealing website and was supposed to have a deep knowledge of investment, to the extent where he made all of his own investment decisions without advice.

He had an interesting approach which involved choosing the first company he saw on the screen and investing every penny he had in that company without any further scrutiny of the companies industry, potential or past performance. This is an extreme yet true story, but an imposter will often find it difficult to make decisions the way your target user would.

It’s easier for them to be a bit Gung-ho than approach the treacherous ground of pretending to make a considered decision which might reveal their lack of domain knowledge.

Confusing and erratic behaviour

If you’ve ever had a very nervous participant you’ll be aware of how their levels of stress can impact the way they try to use the thing you put in front of them. Perhaps that’s the subject for another post, but the same behaviour can be seen in ringers who turn up for user research. They hadn’t perhaps thought through how the format of the session would make it so obvious they weren’t who they say they were.

To them it’s totally obvious they’re a ringer and their nerves are all over the place. To you they are a very confusing participant with really random looking behaviour.

We are all different and sometimes one participant will simply be wildly different to the others you’ve had through the door in terms of their behaviour. But usually their actions make sense and when they don’t it’s often nerves. Those nerves can be genuine and innocent, but also as a result of their attempts at deception.

What do you think?

Do you have any amusing stories of research participants who weren’t who they said they were? Or do you have any tells to spot a ringer? Let me know in the comments.