The buying funnel is a consumer behavior model that tells us how customers purchase products or services. We strategically adapted the buying funnel to create the Digital Health Research Participation Funnel, which was then used to design a more active way for potential participants to volunteer for research studies through UMHealthResearch. Adopting the buying funnel as a UX tool for UMHealthResearch lead to 111% increase in volunteer signups.


UMHealthResearch is a platform that connects the public to health research studies. Born out of the University of Michigan, the platform is now being adopted by various Universities across the country.

Read the paper we authored on this topic

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?

1. User Research

First, we conducted a user research study where we sought feedback from our volunteers through various channels, including in-person interviews, surveys, on-site feedback, and ethnographic studies. We also mined our customer service data to assess the kinds of questions our volunteers were asking.

2. Synthesis

We then synthesized this feedback into broader questions. As a design team, we wanted to be sure to answer these broad questions that users had while searching for a study in which to participate.

3. Mapping insights to the buying funnel to create the Digital Health Research Participation Funnel

We mapped those broad questions to the stages of the buying funnel to create our new Digital Health Research Participation Funnel. The Digital Health Research Participation Funnel allowed us to determine how and where to address user needs and concerns. The broad questions that potential volunteers had when interacting with UMHealthResearch. The Digital Health Research Participation Funnel consists of 5 stages:

Stages of the Health Research Participation Funnel mapped to what potential volunteers want from each stage.
  1. Discover: In this stage, potential volunteers want to learn broad contextual and procedural information about health research and they must establish their own personal criteria for the types of research they are willing to participate in.

  2. Select: In this stage, volunteers narrow down the studies they are interested in so they have a short list of options.

  3. Dig in: In this stage, volunteers drill into the specific details of each study of interest to ensure it meets their personal criteria.

  4. Validate: In this stage, potential volunteers want to know what others who have participated thought about the study.

  5. Participate: In this stage, volunteers actively show interest in a study that they want to participate in and want to know what the next steps are.

4. Design Insights Based on the Digital Health Research Participation Funnel

Stages of the Health Research Participation Funnel, what volunteers want in each stage, what recruitment websites must do to address these wants, and improvements made to UMHealthResearch based on these insights.

Creating the Digital Health Research Participation Funnel helped us understand potential volunteers’ journeys and thoughts while looking for research studies. In turn, this led to design insights for research recruitment Web sites that mapped onto the Digital Health Research Participation Funnel. Specifically, it is critical for recruitment Web sites 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, the Web site 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, Web sites 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.

5. Improvements Made to UMHealthResearch based on the Digital Health Research Participation Funnel

Screenshots from UMHealthResearch: (a) home page corresponding to the “Discover” stage; (b) study results list corresponding to the “Select” stage; (c ) a page showing the details of a specific study corresponding to the “Dig In” stage; and (d) the number of people already interested in a study corresponding to the “Validate” stage and the “I am interested!” button corresponding to the “Volunteer” stage.
To help volunteers in the “Discover” stage, we ensured that the home page provided sufficient education on Digital health research through multiple modalities. For those in the “Select” stage, we created an easy-to-use search function with easy-to-read and detailed search results. To help people “Dig In,” we ensured that the study detail page answered as many questions as possible; thus, potential volunteers would be fully informed when making participation decisions. For those who seek social validation, we display the number of people who have already shown interest in a particular study. Finally, for those who were ready to volunteer, we created an easy-to-use action button, where volunteers click “I am interested!” to sign up for a study.


There has been a notable increase in the number of volunteers who have signed up after our redesign. Signups have increased by a 111%.


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.

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