43 ways to find participants for research

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One of the biggest bottlenecks of research and a topic of unjust misconceptions is finding people who will participate in research. It’s a bottleneck because without participants there is no research. A common misconception is that finding participants for research is hard, costly, and time consuming, almost an unachievable goal, especially from the perspective of those who never conducted research with people.

The following is a list of several dozen options of ways to find participants for studies. As you can quickly see, some ways are relevant for consumer-facing products, some for business-to-business ones, some are easy, others hard, some are free, and others will cost a lot. In any case, you have multiple ways for finding participants.

  1. Ask people who work in the organization that develops the product. For example, ask employees who are not part of the product/design team), or work with departments that can reach out to their product active, potential and or inactive users. If relevant, ask the UX group of a company from which you might want to find participants for research.
  2. Ask family and friends of people who work in the organization that develops the product.
  3. Ask to recruit from a friend’s large pool of potential participants as a favor.
  4. Partner with another company (ask them to volunteer their employees for your research).
  5. Partner with another company who purchases, resells and supports your products).
  6. Snowball: let everyone you know who you look for. Ask friends to ask their friends to ask their friends.
  7. Source on LinkedIn by searching for people with specific criteria and using inMail or 2nd degree intros to contact.
  8. Guerrilla intercept. Not applicable for all research, but if you’re testing a prototype starbucks app, sit in a starbucks and ask people as they walk in. Generic “almost anyone” user? Ask people for five minutes while they’re waiting for their subway train. Stop people on their way into or out of the grocery or retail store (or while they’re inside, if the store is in on the deal).
  9. Ask students.
  10. Recruit from a client customer list (be aware of company regulations that might prevent you from spamming customers).
  11. Recruit past research participants (ask them in advance if it’s okay and keep their details, especially good for specific audiences).
  12. Ask people in large, tech-savvy areas (e.g., Silicon Valley, New York City, etc.)
  13. Go to where your audience physically lingers (e.g., dance schools for novice dancers).
  14. Ask conference attendees.
  15. Recruit to a pool of people who generally wish to participate in research (AKA, a user group, council, or panel), then from it per specific research study.
  16. Ask participants you find to refer friends or colleagues.
  17. Tap into regular feedback surveys you or your clients send to their customers. Ask survey respondent if they want to participate in qualitative research (don’t use that word though).
  18. Search your customer database for users who have commented on the product.
  19. Have a sign-up form and rotating calls to action to link to a form strategically placed on your own website.
  20. Ask new hires.
  21. If you want say, Chemists, you might check out research databases and look for chemists locally and remotely. Many research articles provide email contacts.
  22. Hang print ads on street corners or (physical) message boards. A related idea is to put post-its around town on various public transportation lines and have people email you to sign up.
  23. Call through a newsletter.
  24. Get on email listservs or Slack channels for researchers. Nearly every week there is a recruiting-specific question and multiple responses. Sometimes it’s about recruiting a particular population, or in a certain region, but most of the time, folks have some insight. Search the list for the question and see if there’s any answer.
  25. Intercept visitors on your app or website (through services such as Ethnio).
  26. Intercept product users using tutorial tools such as Appcues or WalkMe.
  27. Source participants through services such as respondent.io and Testing Time.
  28. Intercept people coming off of trials of your product.
  29. Publish a blog post or article.
  30. Post signs in libraries.
  31. Cold call people.
  32. Use Craigslist or an equivalent service.
  33. Publish an online ad using Google Adwords or Facebook.
  34. Publish an ad on a relevant website.
  35. Publish an ad on a print newspaper or magazines.
  36. Publish an ad on radio or TV.
  37. Use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
  38. Ask industry bloggers to post links and/or direct interested participants to sign-up for a very general beta testing panel.
  39. Ask people who preregister for trade shows/industry events to opt-in for being contacted.
  40. Hire a panel company (usually, for large samples).
  41. Invite people to a happy hour at a local bar or restaurant and conduct fast research there.
  42. Hire a participant-recruiting agency or a market research firm. Expensive, but effective, and still a fraction of the overall cost of the research (which is only as good as its participants).
  43. Post on social media (Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter). “Hey, fill out this Google form and see if you qualify for this 30 minute activity that will get you a $50 Amazon gift certificate.” This includes topic-specific message boards and Facebook groups or other online communities.

As one last piece of advice, I will quote my friend and colleague, George Zhang, and recommend to be cautious of the cheap and fast fallacy, as well as the large sample trap. Quality matters, not quantity. Rigor matters, not speed. Outcome matters, not output. Keep these in mind when you look for people to participate in research.

I’d like to thank the following people who responded to my Facebook posts on the topic, which made the list grow twice as much: zarla ludin, Chauncey Wilson, Cindy Alvarez, Diego Mendes, Chris LaRoche, Elizabeth Rosenzweig, Whitney Hess, Reto Laemmler, David Siegel, Dan Berlin, jen mcginn, George Zhang, Danielle Cooley, Michael Ryan, Daniel Stillman, Michele Marut, Susan Mercer, Daniel Szuc, Eva Kaniasty, Rich Buttiglieri, Stavros Garzonis, Kirsten Robinson, and Steve Denning.