Jessica Ivins
Feb 26 · 6 min read
My students (now graduates) conducting a usability test at Center Centre.

One day years ago, when I was a junior UX designer at an agency, I stood in a tight circle with my design team. We huddled around our project manager’s desk and listened as she raised her voice into the phone.

She was talking with the recruiting firm we’d hired to bring in user research participants. She was angry because three out of four participants didn’t show up for the research study that day.

It was a tense situation. Our client drove to our office from out of state to observe research sessions. Only one participant showed up. The client team expected to see multiple usability sessions that day. Instead, they witnessed one no-show after another.

The client was not happy. My team was nervous and embarrassed.

At the time, I thought we hired an incompetent recruiting firm. And maybe we did. But since then, I’ve learned that recruiting can be very difficult, even if you specialize in it, and even if you know how to do it well.

It Takes Time to Learn Recruiting Skills

As I continued through my career, I got to see other UX designers recruit. I observed what they did well and saw the mistakes they made. I took good notes.

By the time I had to recruit participants, I was mostly successful with it. I applied what I learned from others. I read books and articles about recruiting techniques to fill in any gaps in my knowledge. I recruited for several years and forgot how hard it was to learn the skill from scratch.

Then, after classes began at Center Centre, I had to help my students learn to recruit.

Recruiting is Intimidating

My student was stuck. She stared blankly at her computer screen while refreshing her email client. It was early in the Center Centre program, and she was the first student to recruit participants for a team project.

She told me, “I emailed people yesterday, and no one responded. I don’t know what else to do. Should I email them again? I don’t want to nag them.”

I sat with her and helped her. I said, in a supportive tone, “It looks like email isn’t working. So let’s send them private messages on Slack.”

That worked. The recruits responded, and she scheduled them for research sessions.

Many of my students struggled with recruiting, even later in the program. Another student had a tough time finding participants during a different project.

He had seen his peers recruit during previous projects and learned a lot from watching them, just as I had learned from watching others throughout my career. He was doing everything “right” and still needed my help.

So I sat with him and taught him how to use LinkedIn to search for people by profession. I also showed him how to search by geographic location. He searched his LinkedIn network, and I searched mine.

Together, we found enough recruits. My student contacted them and scheduled them to participate in the study.

Recruiting is a Critical Skill

We intentionally designed our curriculum and our projects so students would have to recruit their own research participants.

Recruiting is an essential skill. As a UX designer, you need to know how to find, screen, and schedule participants. By definition, you can’t conduct user research without a user.

Teams don’t always have the option of hiring a recruiting service because these services can be costly. And sometimes, as you saw in my example above, those recruiting services don’t yield good results.

You can’t always rely on someone else on your team to recruit for you. Many UX teams do their own recruiting out of necessity, and the team may assign the task to you someday.

Recruiting is Hard

Like many skills in UX, recruiting takes time to learn because it’s a complicated skill. Throughout the recruiting process, you need to:

  • Figure out how you’ll source people. Will you ask friends and family to refer you to potential participants? Will you find people on social media? Will you recruit people from your current website or app? Will you use another method?
  • Determine how you’ll entice people to participate in the study. How will you get them to opt into your request? What language do you use to make them feel comfortable with participating? If you recruit online, how will you convince participants they are attending a legitimate session and not getting sucked into a scam?
  • Figure out the honorarium (compensation for participating in the study). How will you pay participants for their time? How much budget do you have to pay participants? What do you do if you have no budget for an honorarium and you still need to do research?
  • Get people to respond. How do you make sure recruits receive your messages and reply to you? Will you contact them via email? Phone? Text message? All three?
  • Screen your recruits. You need to confirm that the recruits are a good fit for the study. If you’re conducting research with financial planners, for example, you have to make sure they have relevant experience with financial planning. What questions will you ask to determine their qualifications? How do you weed out people who are unqualified and just vying for the honorarium?
  • Schedule them to attend a research session. You have to communicate with the participant about scheduling and availability. You’ll need to find a time that works for them and your team. This can involve a lot of back and forth communication. Scheduling gets even trickier when the participant is in a different time zone than you.
  • Make sure the participants show up. No-shows are a common problem with user research. You need to send recruits multiple reminders so they’re likely to attend the session. Sometimes this involves (eep!) picking up the phone. Phone call reminders are often more effective than emails or text messages.
  • Deliver the honorarium. How will you compensate participants? Will you email them a gift card? Give them a check? Give them cash? If you give them cash, how will you track it?

As you can see, recruiting is an intense process with many steps.

Recruiting Helps You Gather Research Data

There’s a big bonus to finding your own participants: You get the opportunity to learn about your users while you recruit.

For example, let’s say your team needs to validate a new product idea. The product is an app that connects financial planners with retirees over the age of 55. Your team decides to conduct user interviews with retirees who fit these criteria.

Imagine when recruiting, you can’t find anyone over the age of 55 who’s seeking a financial planner. You tried multiple sourcing methods, and you can’t find one qualified person. Most of the people you talk with already have a financial planner they’ve been working with for years. Or, they manage their finances on their own, and they’re not interested in working with a planner.

That’s research data. You’re already learning about your audience. It’s possible your audience doesn’t exist. Or, there may be so few people in your target audience that there’s not enough demand to build the new app.

I recommend Dana Chisnell’s interview about recruiting participants. In the interview, she explains more about gaining valuable insights from your recruiting process.

Recruiting is a Team Sport

In my experience, when you recruit participants, you own the recruiting process. That doesn’t mean you find people alone. Your team members often contribute.

For example, when my students did a project for Marquette University, they needed to conduct research with university employees. I contacted several friends of mine who work at local colleges in Chattanooga. I asked if they’d like to participate in my students’ research study.

If they said yes, I put them in touch with the student who was recruiting. Ultimately, my student was responsible for recruiting, and I pitched in to help.

Recruiting is a Skill You Can Grow

Learning how to recruit is worth the work. It makes you a more well-rounded designer. That’s why our students learn how to do it.

Remember my student who struggled to recruit early in the program? Two years later, when she became a UX contractor with an outside company, she did her own recruiting and moderated research sessions with the people she recruited.

She even joked with me that she was doing a better job finding participants than her peers at the organization who had more UX experience.

Recruiting is Worth the Effort

Recruiting can be exhausting: It takes a lot of time and energy. Recruiting is also very rewarding. You’ll smile when the team gathers useful data from a participant you recruited. And you get to collect research data about your audience during the process.

I highly recommend recruiting participants if you haven’t already. It’s a humbling and worthwhile experience. And it will give you another UX skill to add to your toolbox, making you a more hirable designer.

Thanks to my colleague, Thomas Michaud, for his input on this article.

Jessica Ivins

Written by

UX designer, educator, and speaker. Faculty member @CenterCentre, the UX design school. Formerly @HappyCog. I like veggies, music, and Oxford commas.

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