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February 11, 2021
A foolproof framework for finding the right participants for any study.
Generally speaking, you need to know what you’re looking for in order to find it. When it comes to finding the right user research participants, this means taking the time to figure out what your research question is and who, exactly, can best help you answer it. While this step may seem like a no-brainer, it’s often overlooked. Taking time to do it right can make a huge difference in the quality of your research.
To do truly meaningful research, you’ll need to start with a good research question. According to Erika Hall of Mule Design, a good research question is “specific, actionable, and practical.”
In other words, an effective research question is one that can be answered with a reasonable amount of certainty, using the tools at hand.
For example, I could not reasonably find an answer to the question: “What does my cat think about all day?” I can’t ask my cat what it thinks about, so any answer to this question would just be a guess. I could, however, answer the question: “What does my cat do while I’m working?” I could monitor behavior over a period of time and eventually wind up with a definitive answer.
Here are some examples of specific, actionable, and practical research questions:
Questions like these are specific enough that you will know when you have found an answer, practical in the sense that you could reasonably find answers in the scope of a research project, and actionable in that you can act on the answer that you find.
A specific, actionable, and practical research question will also help you identify the kinds of participants you need to answer that question. For example, to answer the question “What tools do millennials use to learn how to manage their finances?” you would need to talk to millennials who are interested in actively managing their money.
Once you have your research question, you can start thinking through the specific traits a potential participant needs to have.
For example, if your research question is, “Does our pricing page accurately address our customer’s questions about our pricing?” you may start off with a lengthy list of requirements participants must meet in order to be in your research study. In order to get the best recruit possible, we encourage researchers to narrow their list to the minimum requirements needed.
Sometimes, when you’re getting started with research, it’s easy to get hung up on requirements that don’t really matter to your study. For example, our list of requirements for our pricing study may start off looking something like this:
Investigating each of our requirements further may help us to narrow them down a little and focus on why each requirement is there.
We want to talk to current customers because they can help us best understand the questions our target audience will ask about our pricing. We also want to talk to people who signed up over 6 months ago because that was the last time we changed our pricing page. People who signed up within the past 6 months may have already seen this version of the pricing page and may already have had their questions answered.
As far as eliminating requirements goes, there’s nothing about age that would prevent someone from being helpful with feedback on our pricing page, so we can cut that requirement. Additionally, User Interviews works for teams of all sizes, so the team requirement isn’t really relevant to this study unless our research question specifically involves teams.
So our new requirements are:
This process can help you narrow down your ideal participants and cut out requirements that may slow down your recruit for no reason. It’s also a good way to gut-check your research question. If you find yourself with requirements that aren’t reflected in your question, this process can help you think about why those requirements are there and if you need to alter your research question.
Finding participants is a consistent and frequently cited pain point among just about everyone who does user research. Companies with big research teams have entire research ops divisions to help them manage the logistics of recruiting and managing participants for all those projects. Smaller research teams either go it alone with a recruitment tool or use research agencies to handle recruiting for them.
The good news is there are lots of tools out there to help you recruit participants for your research. You can use low-cost user research recruiting tools like User Interviews to recruit vetted participants, go it alone on Craigslist or social media, or turn to a research recruiting agency for a totally hands-off (but expensive) process.
💡Did you know? 63% of user researchers say they start recruiting 1 week or more in advance. Check out the ✨The State of User Research 2021 Report✨ for more insights on UXR recruiting methods, tools, and timelines.
Recruiting participants through social media or classified ads like Craigslist can be a cheap way to recruit participants.If you’re trying to recruit participants who already use your product, you can use your social media presence to get your followers to give you research insights.
Facebook: If you have a savvy and helpful marketing team, you can recruit participants through paid Facebook advertising. As we outlined in this article about using Facebook Ads to recruit for research studies, performance marketing practices can be directly applied to the research recruitment process. Defining your audience is especially important here, because your ad targeting strategy will determine whether you get relevant respondents for your screening survey.
It’s worth nothing that on Facebook the average reach of an organic page post hovers around 5.20%, according to Hootsuite. That means roughly one in every 19 fans sees a page’s non-promoted content.
Facebook groups, on the other hand, can be a hive of activity, packed with people who are actively talking about shared interests, ideas, professions, hobbies, and more. The challenge is that many of these groups are closed or invite-only, so you may need the admin’s approval to recruit there. If you’re able to get approval, some of your best participants could come from these hyper-specific groups.
Linkedin: Like Facebook, the organic reach of Linkedin posts can be unpredictable. If you have the budget and time, paid advertising on Linkedin can reach specialized professional audiences based on their job titles.
Linkedin also has specific groups for professional and personal interests, which can be a good place to connect with specialized research participants. These groups come with the same complications as Facebook groups, with some of them being closed or invite-only.
Craigslist: This platform limits the amount of ads you can post, so if you have a few studies to recruit for we recommend sticking with the free posts. The quality of participants you get from Craigslist can be hit or miss, but it’s worth working into your recruitment checklist and letting your screener survey sort out the good participants from the bad
Slack: Slack isn’t just a great tool for communication with your colleagues—you can also use it to connect with research participants! Many specialized communities have Slack spaces where people get together and talk about their industry. These communities can be a good place to connect with participants for a hard-to-recruit study. For example, if you want to connect with people who work in digital marketing, you can join communities like OnlineGeniuses.
The most important thing to remember when recruiting in Slack communities is to be respectful. These communities are primarily places for people to meet and connect, not find new research studies to participate in. Ensure that you are asking for research participation in the right channel, communicate the details of your study clearly, and abide by any community rules that exist.
Reddit: Another social media network you may not think of for participant recruitment is Reddit. Like Slack, it primarily consists of specialized subreddits that center around a theme, idea, hobby, location, etc. Because of this, Reddit can be a good place to find specialized groups of people who fit your recruitment criteria.
When posting your research project on Reddit, remember to provide a clear description of your research project, why you need help from the people in this subreddit, and engage with any comments or questions people might have.
Here’s a good example of a survey posted on Reddit, looking for participants with Celiac disease in the subreddit r/celiac:
The poster clearly defined why this survey was in this subreddit and stuck around to answer and address questions from people in the community.
You can also use research-specific Reddit communities to find participants for your research. These communities are devoted to participating in research or finding ways to make a little extra pocket money. They’re not as targeted as posting in a subreddit specifically for your target participant, but can still yield good results.
If you don’t have time or patience to do all the work of recruiting on social media (we don’t blame you) there are some great user research recruiting tools out there to help you get the job done. These tools are tailor-made for participant recruitment, and they can be a good, low-cost way to avoid the headache of recruitment without blowing your budget.
In our totally unbiased opinion, User Interviews is the best pick of the bunch. Our platform is a one-stop shop for recruiting participants—whether you want to draw from your current user list or our pool of over 350,000 ready, willing, and vetted research participants. You can also target over 500 different professions. If you incentivize your participants with Amazon gift cards, we’ll manage the incentives for you.
User Interviews also includes screener surveys, scheduling for interviews, and participation tracking for your existing users. The median turnaround time to match you with your first participant is 2 hours, though it can vary based on the project. If you’re looking for a solution to manage your own participant population, we can do that too! Our Research Hub Free Forever plan stores up to 100 of your own participants and lets you keep track of when they last participated and even how much you’ve paid them in incentives.
User Interviews charges a flat fee per participant recruited. We also offer subscription plans that significantly reduce the amount you pay per participant and enable you to do ongoing monthly research.
User Interviews pricing does not include participant incentives, so you can pay your participants whatever you want! We do, however, help you handle distribution.
Ready to get started with User Interviews? Your first 3 participants are on us.
There are, of course, other tools you can use to find quality participants for your research. But we don’t have discounts to get you started with them 😉. If you’re looking to build your stack, here’s a full list of research tools to get you started.
Of course, using social media and research recruitment tools aren’t the only ways to find research participants. You can also use your own email list, enlist the help of a research recruitment agency, or get creative and try something totally different. (User Interviews actually got its start because our founders had so much trouble finding research participants that they bought one-way tickets to interview people in airports!)
If you’re doing research with your own customers, turning your email list into a participant recruitment tool is relatively simple and can be very effective. Your email list is full of people who are already invested in your product, and may have great insights to share. Work with your marketing or sales team so your research efforts don’t overlap with existing outreach.
Need an easy way to keep track of your email outreach for research? User Interviews Free Forever plan gives you access to our research CRM system for free, forever. You can add up to 100 contacts, build your very own opt-in form to add participants to your database, write unlimited screener surveys, and automatically schedule sessions with qualified participants.
If you want a completely hands-off recruitment process, you can enlist the help of a specialized research recruitment agency. This comes at a cost though—around $107 per participant, on average. That can be a hefty price tag for small businesses to handle, especially since you typically need at least 5 participants to complete a research study.
This next step puts the work you did earlier—defining a research question and key participant traits—into action to separate the good participants from the not-so-good.
The best way to do this is with a screener survey, which is a survey participants take before they are allowed to participate in your study. A screener survey is like a sieve that captures the people who hit all your ‘must have’ criteria and filters out the ones who don’t quite fit the bill.
Although screener surveys are fairly straightforward in concept, there are some common mistakes you’ll want to avoid. A few key things to keep in mind when writing a screener survey:
The screener survey is designed to help you find the candidates who are a perfect fit for your study. Giving away the plot early on can actually devalue the screening process and make your research less effective.
Let’s say your research is about country music. Rather than asking this:
… try something like this:
The same advice goes for your study title, too. Aim for something simple and unspecific—like “Music Study”—that will allow you to pull in a wide audience and carefully sift out the true country music fans.
Demographics are the low hanging fruit of screener surveys, and it’s often a good idea to include a few demographics questions either at the beginning or at the end of your survey. But don’t let age, gender, and location questions be the end-all be-all.
You’ll want to start by identifying which demographics, if any, really define your audience conclusively. Keep in mind that you could leave out demographics all together!
Asking too many irrelevant demographic questions doesn’t just waste participants’ time and patience—it could actually lead you to discount folks who could provide surprising insights, even though they might fall outside of a certain demographic threshold.
Instead, focus on your participant’s behaviors or knowledge. Let’s say you’re a baking website, and you want to create a survey for expert home bakers—the sort of people who you want to become your power users. To filter for this group, you might ask questions about familiarity and comfort with baking terms like “fold” and “beat” and “blind-bake” (yum).
Or, you can ask about baking behaviors. For example:
Determining these classifications will help you identify whether a user ranks high or low for each category you create. Depending on what you want (power users vs. beginners, for example), this gives you a much better place to start filtering from.
Remember: your screener survey and the research that follows should help you tap into what people really want and need from your product—and demographics alone won’t get you there.
To make your screener survey as painless as possible for your participants ask questions that will easily weed people out first. The easiest way to do this is to write out your questions, rank them in order of importance, and look for any interdependencies.
If you’re doing an in-person study, ask about location right away. Since location here is a must and must-have criteria go first.
Before diving into questions about how people use apps on their smartphones, find out if they use a smartphone at all. Start at a higher level and get more niche as the survey goes on.
Then move on to the questions that tap into specific behaviours, interests and preferences.
If you create multiple choice responses, don’t assume that you’ve presented the user with every possible option. As Gandalf once said, “even the very wise[st survey designers] cannot see all ends.”
Include a ‘none of the above,’ ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘other’ option to account for any outliers.
Otherwise you could end up with someone in your survey who doesn’t belong there because they were forced to choose an answer that didn’t apply to them. Likewise, you might screen good participants out because they didn’t quite fit the answers you provided.
Once you’ve defined your research question, identified your target participants, and set up your screener survey, you’ll need to make sure those participants actually want to apply to your study. This is where incentives come in. An incentive is usually a cash or cash-like (think Amazon gift cards) reward for participating in research.
Some studies require more effort, time, and thought than others. For example, if you’re conducting a quick, unmoderated usability test, a lower incentive is probably enough to compensate your participants. On the other hand, if you’re conducting a weeks-long diary study that requires multiple interviews and diary entries, prepare to spend more on your incentives.
When we put together our Ultimate Guide to User Research Incentives, we used data from over 25,000 research sessions to determine the best incentive recommendations for researchers.
We found that there was a difference between the average incentives offered for moderated vs. unmoderated research. Unmoderated research does not involve having a researcher walking the participant through the task and can be completed on the participant’s own time. Moderated research, meanwhile, takes place at a specific time and requires the participant and the researcher to meet up in some way. Moderated research requires more coordination and communication. Because of this, it generally warrants a higher incentive than unmoderated research.
Here are our incentive recommendations in a nutshell:
You’ll notice that we recommend participants be paid different amounts based on their expertise. For example, if you need to talk to people about their grocery shopping preferences, you don’t need to recruit participants with any kind of specialized experience. You just need general consumers who buy groceries.
But if you need to do research on the usability of a new EEG technology, you need to talk to neuroscientists with specialized training. Because you’re drawing on this very niche skill, you’ll have to pay more in incentives to make it worth your participant’s time.
Setting an appropriate incentive increases the likelihood of a great recruit. It shows that you understand what your participant’s expertise is worth to your research, and will be respectful of their time.
Is your audience less motivated by cash-like incentives? Try something else—like in-product bonuses, swag, or a charitable donation. Cash alternatives can be most useful for high-level occupational targeting and for your own customers. On a recent episode of our podcast, Product Discovery Coach Teresa Torres said,
“I think for enterprise clients, cash is rarely the right reward, so you have to look at: What's something valuable that you can offer? And it could be anything from inviting them to an invite-only webinar. It could be giving them a discount on their subscription for a month. It could be giving them access to a premium helpline. You've got to just think about: What is outsized value for the task that you're asking for.”
The most important thing about your incentives is that they are valuable to your participants. Your incentive should be something that makes people excited about participating in your research, and that’s not always cold, hard cash. (Seriously, don’t underestimate the power of good swag: There’s a whole community of people dedicated to buying, selling, and trading Mailchimp monkeys, after all.)
Moral of the story? Get creative with your incentives. Although in many cases cash is the right move, it’s not the end-all-be-all of research incentives.
Don’t you just love emailing back and forth to “find a time that works best for everyone?” Yeah, neither do we. That’s why we built scheduling right into the User Interviews interface, so you can just choose the times you’re available and your participants can select from the available time slots.
If you’re not using User Interviews to schedule your sessions, you may need a dedicated scheduling tool to help you coordinate your sessions— especially when coordinating multiple interviews. Avoid the pain of scheduling by using a calendar integration to block off times that participants can choose from.
Tools like Calendly, Doodle, and YouCanBookMe help take the hassle out of scheduling sessions by allowing your participants to select an available time slot on your calendar, similar to the UI scheduling function.
Make sure to include a calendar invite when each booking is confirmed. If they accept the invite, the participant may get notifications on their phone in addition to your emails and other outreach—all of which help them remember to show up!
After a participant signs up for a user research session, send them a confirmation email right away. To help your participants remember the interview and get to the right place at the right time, be sure to include these four key pieces of information:
Time and date
Clearly state the date, day of the week, and time of the appointment. Make sure the time is stated in your participant’s time zone if you’re conducting the test remotely.
This could be a note that the interview will happen via video call or at a physical location. Include a map or directions if the test is in person.
How to get to the session location
Make sure your participant can access the meeting area once they know where to go. This could mean including a link to a video call with log-in instructions for a remote test, or directions about which building to go to and how to get through security for an in-person test.
Include a reference to your initial posting or request. You don’t want to include too much information (to avoid biasing the user), but a simple reminder keeps the reason for the test clear in the participant’s mind..
It never hurts to be enthusiastic, thank the interviewee, and re-emphasize the impact of the interview. When you do so, you impress on the participant the importance of their presence, and you position the interview in their minds as a pleasant opportunity, rather than another chore.
While you don’t want to bombard your participants, a single reminder might not be enough, so plan to follow up multiple times. A typical outreach cadence may include an email:
On the day of sign-up—This will be your first opportunity to give them all the details so they can plan effectively.
A week in advance—If you scheduled more than a week in advance, follow up seven days before the interview.
The day before—Follow up the day before the interview with all relevant details to make sure your participant can plan accurately.
The day of the test— Send a final follow-up a few hours before the interview. Again, include all details, especially directions and access information, to make sure your user can reach you without trouble. You may want to provide a phone number or way to contact the researcher in case your participant needs real-time assistance.
Nielsen Norman Group has found that the average no-show rate for a user research study is 11%. That means that for every 10 participants you recruit, 1 of them is likely to be a no-show.
If you’re going it alone with your research recruiting, it’s always a good idea to recruit a few extra participants that you can call on, just in case.
If you’re using User Interviews, we automatically find more participants than you need for your research. This means you’re never caught without backup participants if someone doesn’t show up for their session.
That’s all folks! Everything you need to know to recruit great participants for great user research.
You should now know how to establish your research question and build your participant parameters from there, get creative with how you recruit participants, take your time on the screener questions, offer a fair incentive, check in with participants throughout the process, and recruit a few extra people (just in case).
Streamline your participant recruiting process even further with User Interviews—the fastest way to recruit high-quality research participants. Ready to get started? Get your first three participants for free.
Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.