Finding and recruiting research participants is one of the biggest bottlenecks to continuous, scalable research. Read effective ways to recruit participants.
Sometime back, I lived in a building with a silly elevator.
Every time I took it, I had to fiddle with the call buttons–figuring out the right order (floors 1–7) since they weren’t designed as per my expectations. So every time I climbed in, I cursed under my breath.
Now that I’m writing this piece, I realize what went wrong with the elevator: it wasn’t tested with actual users to see if it met expectations. That could have prevented the bad design.
The thing is: user research is essential to good design. However, conducting UX research poses its own challenges. For instance, 43% of UXers think that finding test participants is the most challenging phase of their UX research process.
But, finding research participants doesn’t have to be a roadblock if you know where to look.
So, in this guide, we’ll focus on walking you through seven no-nonsense ways of pooling participants. We’ll also share some essentials of recruiting participants for research.
Ready to learn? Let’s roll.
What to know about participant recruitment
Before we dive into the meaty part of finding test participants, let’s dig into the basics of participant recruitment:
Recruit participants representative of your users
First off, make sure that the participants you recruit are representatives of your existing and potential users. Slack here and you skew the purpose of your research. Wizeline’s Senior UX Designer, Elba Ornelas, advises you to look at your user personas to drill down to the exact participants you need. “[Personas] outline the main user profile that your product may be targeted for,” says Ornelas. “Bear special attention to the type of behaviours you are seeking to fulfil.”
Conducting screening interviews is one way to ensure you recruit the right participants. To make your screen interviews a success, avoid asking leading questions that instruct a person to answer in a specific way.
Identify your user research method
For instance, when running quantitative research, you need a larger pool of participants — twenty or more — to ensure you collect statistically significant results. Ornelas shares, “You have the options of qualitative and quantitative research methods at hand. Both require “a specific number of people to conduct research, as well a specific set of materials to make it happen.”
Pro tip: Play it safe by recruiting backup participants to make up for any eleventh-hour cancellations.
Create a system to keep in touch with test participants
When you recruit participants for a research study, make sure to set up a system that will help you keep in touch with participants and manage relationships for current and future studies. Use a project management tool like Trello or Notion, or simply create a spreadsheet to save participants’ contact information. Having this information handy allows you to create a list of interested test participants that you can reach out to for different projects.
Use this system to track the progress of participant recruitment. Have you shared screening questions with them? Label the progress as such. Have you approved the participant for research? Add them under the ‘research in-progress’ section.
Don’t forget to keep in touch with participants not selected in the screening process too. Who knows, a participant that isn’t a good fit for the current project might be helpful for another one. So leave them a message, thanking them for their time, updating on the screening results, and informing that you’d like to keep in touch for future collaboration.
Offer incentives to encourage participation
This is up to you whether you want to offer incentives or not. On one hand, offering incentives such as payments, vouchers, or covering expenses like hotel and travel costs for in-person research encourages participation. On the other hand, participants may not offer objective feedback in hopes of winning the incentive.
If you decide to give incentives, know that the type of incentive will depend on how long the research will take and the type of participants you need.
Ornelas adds, “Depending on the characteristics of the end-users, one type of incentive could be more suiting than others. For example, Amazon gift cards in case end-users are avid online buyers. Or, even offering something from the service, such as a free month of service, could be a good incentive.”
Build relationships with your target audience
Whether you pool participants online or with the help of other teams who work closely with your customers, always remember to keep in touch with them regularly. This way, you can develop a Customer Advisory Board or community of users for research and feedback.
Nabeena Mali, the Head of Product at BfB Labs, told me they build relationships with their target audience to get feedback and generate ideas:
“As our user testing involves children, we have built strong relationships with local schools who have an interest in using our products,” Mali explains. “Not only do we work with them to test the product, but they are also involved in the co-creation workshops we run to generate ideas.”
A few things that help them strengthen their relationship with local schools: pairing up with schools that share their values and making the entire research process fun and engaging for their young audience.
Thanks to these relationships they built, Mali says, “often the schools were more than happy to be involved in early pilots and even helped facilitate further introductions to parents.”
So now you know what to do, right?
7 effective ways to recruit research participants for a study
The exact method you’ll use to recruit participants depends on your budget, time availability, and requirements.
That said, let’s walk you through seven ways to find participants.
Leverage your personal network
Ask your friends, colleagues, family, and wider network to help you with research.
One thing to bear in mind: ask people from your network to participate in research only if they fit your target persona’s bill or if your target audience is so wide that it includes everyone. Say, a social media app.
The upside to working with your network is that you can find some really enthusiastic research participants if you have a broad network.
But there’s a serious downside you need to keep an eye out for the potential for bias. These types of participants might unintentionally give you subjective feedback because they’re your friends and want to be in your good books or fail to see your design’s shortcomings and bottlenecks.
Source participants for your study via online communities
Don’t have a wide circle? No sweat. You can always tap into online communities or ready-made-online-networks as I like to call them.
Find these communities over at Slack and Reddit channels.
UX specialist, Andreas Johansson, says: “Find communities where people similar to [your] intended target users hang out. For example, say I was designing a website builder, then I’d go to communities for existing website builders, as well as web design communities on Reddit, Facebook, and more.”
Johansson suggests you can find the right community by taking to Google and searching for:
<name of community + forum>
I googled the same with an example target audience of freelance designers. Here’s what I found:
You can also go to Slofile, an online database of Slack communities, to find your target audience on Slack.
In some online communities, you might need a forum moderator’s permission for digging out research participants. In that case, it’s best to talk to them by explaining the purpose of your post in the community before posting your request.
A good way to encourage folks to participate in your research is to use a community engagement approach with them rather than posting and disappearing.
When you show up as a regular name in a community and engage with its members, they’re more likely to recognize you and help than when you are a stranger posting for the first time.
Find research participants over social media
Facebook and LinkedIn groups are great for this. As in the case above, you can take to Google and search for:
<community name + social channel>
You can use the social channel’s internal search bar too to find relevant groups. Filter them by city, if needed:
Alternatively, you can use LinkedIn cold outreach to pool specific research participants based on job role, location, and more filters. Start with typing in terms that describe your target user in the LinkedIn search bar. Let’s say, UX researchers in the example below:
Apply filters to narrow down on the demographic, industry they work in, and more:
Once you have a list of potential participants, send them a LinkedIn message explaining your hunt for test participants.
Here’s a template to give you an idea:
I’m reaching out to you on behalf of my team at [company name] to express our interest in collaborating with you over [explain your research briefly]. I’m [name] and I work as [your role].
We find that you’re a good fit because [reason]. If this is of interest to you, you’ll only need to [explain research process]. It shouldn’t take over [time it’ll take], but for all your help, we’d be happy to [share incentive if planned].
If you’re in, please let me know and I’ll share more details with you.
Ideally, get straight to the point in your message.
Explain briefly why you’re reaching out, followed by sharing context (who you are and what your research is about). Then explain what makes them a good fit. Don’t forget to mention any incentive that you’ve planned for participants. And, always close your message with a CTA, such as a link to the screening questions or the test.
One last tactic to gather research participants via social: Use paid ads to find target users, particularly when you’re validating a new idea or trying a new market to target for a consumer app.
For about $50–200, you can run targeted ads on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to reach out to people that aren’t accessible to you. For instance, they live in a different country or fall within a specific age range and skillset.
Add a link to a survey or a form to gather information on potential test participants. Use the info you gather to filter and screen participants before reaching out to them with research details.
Get internal feedback
This method is ideal if you have in-house experts that fit your target persona’s description. A case in point here is Canopy, an accounting software for accountants. For testing their Help Center design, the team put together four variations of the design and asked internal accounting specialists for their feedback.
You can also get internal feedback as initial input on a problem that your product aims to solve. However, you can’t rely on internal feedback for specific use cases and later on in the app’s design when you need your exact target audience to test the product.
Gathering internal feedback is best for discovery research when you’re framing a problem and getting a sense of what you need to do to solve it. It also helps with early-stage usability testing by sharing your wireframes or low-fidelity prototypes to test your design’s functionality.
You could conduct 1:1 interviews with internal people, request them to fill in surveys, or host focus group sessions to encourage discussions around your audience’s frustrations, behaviour, and emotions with a product/issue.
One thing to be careful about: make sure you don’t limit your research radius to close colleagues so you can work out bias from the equation. Use this method in combination with other methods listed here to recruit research participants that fit your target personas for any subsequent research.
Curate a pool of enthusiastic customers for participant recruitment
The customer service, support, and sales teams are in constant touch with your customers — learning what bugs them, understanding their pain points, what new features they wish your app had, and so on.
Pair up with these teams to curate a list of enthusiastic customers who love your product and would like to help you improve it. Recruiting participants this way is helpful when you’re planning product updates, in-app tweaks, or introducing new features.
Here, at Maze, for instance, we have a Customer Advisory Board of more than 90 customers who give us feedback on both new and existing features. Customer feedback from the committee has been overly valuable.
For instance, “In one conversation with this customer, we went from a simple duplicate feature to the possibility of having an entire testing library in Maze. This is the hidden gold the Customer Advisory Board reveals,” shares George Markos, Customer Success Lead at Maze.
Besides an advisory board, you can consider the following options to curate customers for research:
- Create an online community, for instance, a Facebook group, and invite customers to join it. For example, Freetrade has a community of users that they refer to for research and getting feedback. Alternatively, create your customer community in Slack like Braze’s Braze Bonfire Slack group, where they share links to their tests with customers interested in evaluating the prototype.
- Another option is to leverage WhatsApp or other messaging platforms to keep in touch with your customers and ask the community for research and feedback. For example, Tiendanube has WhatsApp user groups where they share links to design tests.
- Create an early access or beta group of current and prospective customers who are interested in testing your product for usability. Post-product launch, continue using this group as a research channel.
Now that you’ve all these ideas to create online customer communities, the question is: how can you get customers to join your community?
You can try these two options:
- One, run an email campaign for onboarding customers. Send out an email informing customers about your group and ask if they’d be interested in joining. The Customer Success team at Maze sent out this email when onboarding customers for CAB. It got an overwhelmingly positive response:
- Create a page on your website dedicated to your community. Share links to it on your social channels or run a pop-up notification on your homepage to encourage folks to join. Here’s Sketch’s research community page, Sketch Labs, for inspiration:
Find test participants with guerilla testing
Have you ever encountered people on a busy street sharing samples of new products? I’ve had salespeople stop me for testing the latest in their line of perfumes, chicken nuggets, and other items.
Guerilla testing is pretty much the same minus the free chicken nuggets (although it’s helpful to offer incentives like gift cards or a free coffee to encourage people to spend a few minutes with you).
Pick a busy place like a subway station or coffee shop and ask passersby if they could spare a few minutes to test your prototype.
Put simply, guerilla testing is testing on the streets. It’s most suitable for recruiting participants for consumer-focused apps such as online shopping and healthcare.
The best part? It doesn’t cost you a fortune and gets you the exact raw info you need for designing your app.
But be warned: guerilla testing isn’t a good fit for complex research that requires subject-specific knowledge needed to use a product. Say, testing use cases in a finance app. In those instances, use the other six methods mentioned here to find the right participants for your project.
Use tools that find test participants for you
Using a tool to find research participants boils down to your budget. Expect to pay up to $300 per participant if you require the participants to fit specified criteria.
This is a costly method but one that gets you the right research participants when you need them. For example, for creating a medical app that helps young doctors in New Zealand find available medicines in their local pharmacies, you’ll need young doctors in the country between the age bracket of 28–35 as your research participants. If it’s an Android app that you’re designing, you’ll also need to specify that participants must be Android app users.
On top of that, recruiting participants using market research tools is great when recruiting lots of participants, such as for quantitative testing. You can also rely on this method for projects that require thorough research and testing before their launch to avoid any major issues.
Maze, for instance, offers a Tester Panel with a pool of 70,000 participants. You can select participants that fall within your target audience’s demographic and get results within a couple of hours.
Other testing tools include User Interviews, Respondent (ideal for B2B research), UserZoom, and Ethnio, to name a few.
Using Screening Questions to Select Participants
To recruit study participants, you should ask screening questions that assess their background and characteristics. For example, if you’re designing a website about online games, you might need people who are interested in gaming. To assess this, you could simply ask them, “Do you play online games?”
But screening questions that make the purpose of the study obvious can backfire. If people can easily guess what the study is about, some will be tempted to exaggerate their responses just so they can participate (and receive the incentive, if the study offers one). When part of the screening process for a research study, the question “Do you play online games?” will clearly signal to respondents that the study is about gaming. It will be easy for people to guess that, if they admit that they do not play online games, they’re unlikely to be invited to participate in the study.
Therefore, screening questions have two conflicting goals:
- They must elicit specific information about users.
- They should also avoid revealing specific information about the study.
Achieving both goals is tricky, but it can be done by carefully preparing screening questions using two main techniques: open-ended questions and distractors.
Open-Ended Screening Questions
An open-ended question asks people to answer in their own words instead of choosing from a list of predefined answers. Since there are no answer choices provided, it’s difficult for people to guess which answer is ‘right.’
Open-ended questions can be used to elicit details about past experiences. Rather than asking whether someone plays online games, you can ask “What activities do you do online?” and select participants who mention games.
Open-ended questions are also good for assessing:
- Disqualifying occupations: If there are specific categories of people you need to exclude from the study, an open-ended question will be better than a multiple-choice one with answers that list the excluded categories. For example, unless your design is for expert users, it’s best to exclude those whose job relates to the design you are evaluating, because their professional experience makes them too different from a normal user. If you’re evaluating a website about travel planning, people who work in the tourism industry would likely have a completely different perspective from the average traveler. The open-ended question, “What is your occupation?” is more likely to get accurate responses than a question which lists all the excluded occupations and relies on people to self-identify whether any of those describes their job.
- Level of experience or interest: If you need to recruit people who are highly familiar with a certain topic, open-ended questions can elicit authentic details that tell you whether respondents have the relevant experience. If you ask people how often they play online games, it’s easy for someone who plays a few times a year to exaggerate and claim that she plays several times a week. But if you ask her to describe some of her favorite games and why she likes them, you will quickly be able to distinguish the hard-core gamer who can immediately list the names and details of many games from the person who can barely remember any. (If you are writing screener questions that someone else will be asking in an interview, request that respondents’ answers to these open-ended questions be written down word for word.)
However, open-ended questions alone are not enough to ensure effective participant screening, because they have some critical limitations. If you are recruiting for a very specific niche behaviour, an open-ended question may fail to elicit relevant information because some people who do engage in the behaviour may not mention it in their response to a general question. Also, in purely practical terms, responses to open-ended questions require more time to produce and also more time to collect and analyze. Because the answers are free text, you need to read through each respondent’s statement and evaluate its meaning. This extra step may not be possible in some contexts (such as unmoderated usability studies, which are often designed to allow people to instantly proceed to the study after answering the screening questions, with no time allowed for a researcher to review the screener responses).
DON’T rely on ‘yes or no’ questions:
“Would you consider using a short-term scooter rental service again in the future?”
DO ask open-ended questions to elicit authentic experiences:
“Please describe the last time you rented a scooter.”
Distractor Answer Choices
Multiple-choice questions can be instantly evaluated, making them suitable for unmoderated recruiting; they also allow you to assess specific behaviours that people might not think to mention in an open-ended response. But, it’s still important to avoid revealing the purpose of the study. To do so, borrow a technique used by teachers for multiple-choice tests: include distractors among the answer choices. Distractors are incorrect answer choices that camouflage the right answer by surrounding it with incorrect responses. Good distractors look like they could be correct responses — they help distinguish between people who truly know the correct answer and those who are just guessing and are likely to pick one of the appealing distractor answers.
You can incorporate distractors into multiple-choice screening questions by providing answer choices that include both your target response and several equally plausible responses. The distractor answers should be realistic both as activities that people would do and as research topics for an organization. For example, if you’re recruiting people who are interested in using a scooter-rental app, you might ask about scooters and include walking, ride-sharing, and taxis as distractors. But hang gliding would not be a good distractor, because it’s obviously not a reasonable transit option in an urban area, and also not a behaviour so common that companies would conduct research about it.
For some questions, it will be appropriate to allow people to select more than one answer. Make sure to exclude respondents who select all the answers to one question — (especially if they do so repeatedly for several questions). Selecting all choices is a warning sign that the person may be too eager to participate, and it would be safer to choose someone who selected fewer choices.
If you’re using a testing platform that allows asking only one or two screening questions, even a single, well-written screening question with good distractors can be effective at identifying which potential participants match your target audience.
DON’T ask easy-to-guess multiple-choice questions:
If you needed to get to a meeting on the other side of downtown, about 2 miles away, which of the following would you consider doing to get to your meeting?
B. Hang glide
C. Rent a scooter
DO use plausible distractor answers to conceal the subject of the study:
If you needed to get to a meeting on the other side of downtown, about 2 miles away, which of the following would you consider doing to get to your meeting?
B. Rent a bike
C. Rent a scooter
D. Take an Uber
Wrap up thoughts
With these seven participant recruitment tactics, we’re positive you wouldn’t dread finding research participants like you would without all the know-how. Work out which method will suit your requirements and budget and get started with your research work.