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Recruiting research participants

How do you recruit for a user research project? In this article, we break down successful participant recruitment strategies.
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Finding people to take part in your research, or research participant recruitment means finding or sourcing the types of people you want to speak to based on your problem statement and research questions. An operations role is crucial for participant recruitment. Finding the right people for your research can be time-consuming, depending on how niche or specific your requirements are. It might be tempting to take shortcuts in this phase but recruiting the wrong people for your project can undermine the whole thing.

Participant profiles

There is no such thing as a ‘typical user’, a generic person, or an audience of ‘everyone.’ Regardless if you are starting with a broad base and using research to help you identify your target audiences, or if you have a clearer idea of who you want to research with, you should be able to articulate some specifics about their profile. Be as clear as you can about what features or experiences you would like your research participants to have. Recruitment profiles should share the characteristics and goals of your target audience. For example, people in their 30s in a certain income bracket and who have had a minor car accident in the last 6 months. Or women over 40 who live in a city and cycle regularly. Layering too many unnecessarily specific features can make recruiting more difficult (and result in useless data), but having too few features could mean you waste time speaking to the wrong people. Try to find a balance between the two.

Incentives

Giving research participants fair compensation for their time is an important ethical point. People taking part in your research are giving up their time, their personal stories, and their personal information for the development of your product or service, for which participants will not continue to benefit. You can’t make a good product or service without them. Make sure you have set aside enough budget for incentives that are valuable, fair, and exchangeable. Consider asking participants what they think is a fair exchange and let them lead the way on what incentives they will get within your budget.

Research information sheet

This is a short introduction to your research project. It should give people enough information for them to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to take part as participants. It outlines

Screeners

A screener is a series of questions that help you filter in and out the right research participants. It is a more developed version of your participant profiles. Your screener should include:
  • A description of the behaviours you are looking for
This is the most important part of your screener. If you are carrying out research to inform the design of a product or service for dog owners, you want to find people who actually own dogs, not people who wish they could own a dog someday. You can ask questions in your screener that quickly filter in appropriate people and filter out inappropriate people.
  • A skill level that is appropriate for your research
For example, if you are researching for something that will require the use of a certain tool, make sure your participants know how to use that tool. Conducting research for an app with people who don’t know how to use their phones or conducting research for a new cycle path with people who learned how to ride a bike yesterday will result in the wrong kind of feedback.
  • A level of domain knowledge appropriate to your research
If your participants need to have a level of knowledge about something, be sure to include that in your screener. For example, if you’re researching for a website about horse riding, it might be useful to screen for people who ride and keep horses. If you’re researching a service for architects, don’t research with astrophysicists. You get the idea.

How to recruit

You can do your own recruitment through email outreach or posting your information sheet and screeners to places on social media or in physical spaces you identify as being used by your target groups. Go anywhere you are allowed to post something. Consider doing direct message outreach to moderators of online groups that are private. Ask the corner shop owner if you can pin up a flyer. You can also take time to phone around different groups and organisations you think can help you reach the right people. Doing your own recruitment is about building relationships and engendering trust. You are essentially asking people to share their personal information and stories with strangers so thoughtful outreach can demonstrate your goodwill. Doing your own recruitment is especially recommended if you would like to start to build a participant repository for future research.
You can hire a professional recruitment agency, however, these services can be expensive and using them removes a relationship building aspect that may be valuable to you longer term. Agencies are handy if you are in a pinch with time, and if you think you might need one, make sure your budget allows for it. A simple Google search will help you to find a suitable agency.

Here are some additional resources about screeners:

Step Activity

In the comments section below, we want you to tell us: What questions would you ask in a screener? What questions would you not ask in a screener? Why?
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