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BlogRecruiting

January 23, 2020

Is Working with a Participant Recruitment Agency the Best Way to Conduct User Research?

Budget. Time. Participant quality. Are agencies the way to go? We explore when they work best and an alternative for when they fall short.

David Klose

Using participant recruitment agencies can be a viable solution for your user testing needs, but it’s not the only option out there. How well an agency works for you depends on your specific needs. For example, using an agency can be a great option when you’re conducting user research in unfamiliar, international markets. 

But recruiting agencies are not always the best option for finding participants for your user test or research. If you want to get started quickly, work within a limited budget, or have more control over participant selection, working with an agency can be a frustrating experience.

User Interviews is an alternative to traditional recruitment agencies. We provide participant recruitment as an affordable product rather than an expensive service, using software to reduce the costs of participant acquisition, increase researcher autonomy (which increases speed and quality of results), and offer transparent and fair pricing to our clients.

In this article, we cover the key differences between agencies and User Interviews for finding user research participants, plus we provide our honest take on when a recruiting platform or an agency may be best to meet your research recruiting needs.

Note: Looking for a specific audience to participate in your user research? User Interviews offers a complete platform for finding and managing participants. Tell us who you want, and we’ll get them on your calendar. Find your first three participants for free.

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Participant Recruitment Agencies vs. User Interviews: At a Glance

Participant Recruitment Agencies vs. User Interviews: At a Glance table

How Soon Do You Want to Start Testing?

If getting participants quickly is important to you, going with a full-service participant recruitment agency may not be the best idea. Onboarding and working with an agency takes time. And if you’re focused more on speed, chances are you don’t need hand-holding as much as you need a tool to help you get high-quality participants for your research ASAP.

Here are two ways User Interviews works to get participants rapidly (our median time to your first matched participant is just two hours):

  1. User Interviews has over 200,000 participants in our panel. This large number of vetted participants helps cater to hundreds of categories of demographics and user behaviors. 
  1. Screening surveys are your greatest asset. In participant recruitment, speed and quality go hand in hand. A fast recruitment process that delivers testers who aren’t a good match isn’t anyone’s idea of success. Creating screeners, or even advanced screeners (which allow for phone/email conversation before confirming participation), for your participants helps reduce the risk of getting people who aren’t right for your study, thus saving you time and money.

How Do Participant Recruitment Agencies and User Interviews Differ When It Comes to Guaranteeing Quality Participants?

In recruiting participants, it’s often important to go beyond just specific demographics to desired user behaviors. You don’t merely want someone whose age, income bracket, and college education matches your customer – you also want someone whose behavior matches your customer. You don’t want personas. You want the person.  

When it comes to the actual recruitment, participant recruitment agencies and User Interviews operate quite differently. In this section, we’ll explore:

  • Where do participants come from?
  • Are participants who they say they are? 
  • Is there a vetting process in place to keep out “professional testers”?
  • Can a researcher personally reject and accept each participant before starting user testing?

User Interviews

We automatically provide demographic, geographic, and technographic information to our researchers. This allows your screening questions to be focused more on finding the right user behaviors for your study within your specified demographics. 

When you use a screener survey, you can ask whatever specific questions you need to figure out if a participant is a good fit or not. Plus, you can verify participants’ Facebook and LinkedIn accounts. Once a participant is matched to your project, you have final say over whether they can schedule a time with you or not. If you don’t think they’re a good fit and reject their application, you won’t be charged.

Similar to agencies, we do encourage researchers to prepare for no-shows or cancellations. Simply approve more candidates than you need for every project. This makes it easy to quickly fill cancelled spots or add a session with a new participant if someone didn’t show up. We boast no-show rates below 10% and fill rates between 80 and over 100%, depending on lead time, how niche the audience is, incentives, and other criteria.

Our software’s algorithm tracks participant behavior over time, such as:

  • Did the participant show up?
  • Were they positively rated by the tester?
  • What sort of screener surveys have they applied for in the past (and therefore, which studies might be a good fit in the future)?

By collecting this data, we can reduce the number of professional testers and no-shows who respond to your survey. People with a good record are prioritized when they apply to be part of your research project, and study notifications are sent to the most relevant participants for your study. 

Participant Recruitment Agencies

Beth in Peru
Beth Koloski (Denver Innovation) does research around the world. For research projects like the one pictured above in Peru, she uses agencies to find qualified participants. But in the U.S., she enjoys using User Interviews.


Most agencies kick things off with onboarding meetings to find out who you want. After that, the agency takes your recruitment criteria and finds participants for you. But when you’re not in control of the screening process, there’s a greater risk of mismatches.

What happens if the recruitment agency finds participants who are an 80% match to your qualifiers? What about 75%? What if the agency finds a candidate who matches every demographic you listed but whose behavior is wrong for your test?

Often, you won’t actually know how closely participants match the vision you had for recruitment. When you’re doing usability testing, perhaps a 70% match is just fine. But if you’re doing market research, user experience research on a new product, and so forth, who you speak with can make or break the validity of your results.

The same gap in knowledge and quality control is present when it comes to sorting out “professional testers,” or those who hijack user testing projects as a means of extra income. They may lie on their self-reported information to get picked as a participant.

This is why you’ll see some agencies operate on a “recruit X, show Y” model, where X stands for the number of participants they find who they believe qualify for your study, and Y is the number you actually test. X is always the larger number because they are preparing to have either a) some participants not show or b) some participants be a wrong fit for your study. In these situations, you’re often still billed for X. That is, you’re paying for participants who won’t actually help your research.

All that said, plenty of researchers have had reasonably good experiences with agencies (and we don’t want to take away from that). We welcome you to try both options, and see for yourself which works better for your needs. 

The Costs of a Participant Recruitment Agency vs. User Interviews

With a participant recruitment agency, you aren’t usually given transparent, readily available pricing. This is because agencies work on a quote by quote basis, tailoring their costs to whatever needs they discover through the sales process. 

An agency will generally charge more and offer more to justify that increased price, but whether or not that is a good value depends on what you need as a researcher.

At User Interviews, we break our pricing down into two categories: Pay As You Go (ideal for teams with occasional recruiting needs) and Research Hub Unlimited (for teams that need ongoing access to qualified participants).

Pay As You Go Pricing:

  • $30 per completed test or interview (when you’re interviewing consumers)
  • $70 per completed test or interview (when you’re interviewing professionals).

These prices include…

  • Unlimited screener questions
  • Facebook and LinkedIn verified profiles for the participants
  • Automated scheduling
  • A system to manage and automate incentive payments
  • Reminder emails and text messages to your participants.

Research Hub Unlimited Pricing

Research Hub Unlimited Pricing Chart


Note: The difference between a researcher seat and a collaborator seat is that a researcher can launch and edit projects, whereas collaborators can only view projects. Researcher seats can be added on the Consumer plan, the Bring Your Own plan, and All Access plan for $75, $150, and $300, respectively.

If these plans don’t fit your needs, reach out to talk to us about a plan that does work for you at sales@userinterviews.com.

Note for both plans: The prices above do not reflect incentives to your participants but do reflect an incentive payment system that helps you manage your payouts simply.

When Using a Participant Recruitment Agency Is the Smarter Choice 

User Interviews offers its services risk free. This means you can sign up, book a participant, and only pay for completed sessions. And because of the fast turnaround time (median time of 2 hrs to match with your first participant), it isn’t like you wasted a whole day to figure out if User Interviews works for you.

Still, there are three areas where a participant recruitment agency is likely the solution to your problem.

1. You are conducting testing outside of U.S. and Canadian markets.

An agency is a good fit for researchers who need to do international studies. An agency in the country or region where you’re conducting your research will know the subtle nuances of language and culture that are difficult to capture with a software-based platform.

2. You need participants for very niche, hard-to-recruit industries.

Certain niche studies may require an agency to do all the hyper-manual, necessary leg work to find participants who are a good fit. While User Interviews has a large pool of participants and methods to acquire more on demand, we can’t guarantee participants for every type of study, lead time, and incentive amount you offer. Some niche markets will require specialized agencies or agencies who can invest the time or labor hours in finding the right participant.

Still, it’s worth launching a study to see if we can meet your needs — you won’t pay a cent unless we find qualified participants who you actually interview.

3. You want more hands-on involvement from third-party researchers.

Simply put, you just want an agency. You want a team of recruiters who will find the participants, provide the screeners, weed out any bad fits, and bring you testers for your research. You want someone who is on call and ready to answer your questions.

While User Interviews offers a dedicated project coordinator for all of our clients and will provide assistance when requested, we found a significant amount of our researchers enjoy the autonomy they have by using our platform. Researchers can take more control of the recruitment process and don’t need to worry about paying fees for recurring, unwelcome services. 

Final Thoughts

Most recruitment agencies are good at what they do, but they aren’t always the right tool for the job. You can find high quality participants whose behavior aligns with your users (or intended users) without paying a fortune.

Want to see for yourself? Find your first three participants for free on User Interviews.