Finding the people you’re designing for

You’re tackling a big social issue and you have grand plans to make a positive impact with real people. But wait, when it comes to user interviews and testing, who are you talking to? That’s where user recruitment comes in.

User recruitment is the often forgotten step between scoping a project and conducting research. It literally involves tracking people down and asking them if you can talk to them. User recruitment can be a huge undertaking, especially if you’re designing for a small, niche group of users. Here’s some advice from Design for America alumni on finding the right people to talk to.

Be extremely informative
Explain what your goals are, what you’re doing, and what your users would get out of this process as clearly as possible. The design process is new and potentially confusing to many people.

Be on top of your communication
Reply to emails and phone calls promptly, be courteous and respectful. Make sure they’re concise, and revise a couple times if needed. This is a sign of professionalism that will help people take you seriously.

Mention the benefits of volunteering their time
There are times when you can’t offer large monetary incentives (or monetary incentives at all), so appeal to their higher sense of duty by saying that they’ll be contributing to the wellbeing of ____ or helping build for ___. You can also offer them a small compensation by getting them coffee or bringing drinks/snacks.

Always thank participants afterward. If they’re interested, share the results of your work with them when it’s finished.

Tell participants how much time you’re asking for
Give them realistic expectations, ask them to take a 5-minute survey or have a 20-minute call. The length of the interview depends on your research goals. If it’s initial user research, try to plan for 45 minutes so you can go deep (ask 5 why’s). If your users aren’t opening up, you can always end early. If it’s usability testing, plan for 45–60 minutes to allow time spent conducting tasks.

Build trust
You are trying to convince people to give you their time and confide their personal experiences with you. Be warm, empathetic, and hold yourself accountable.

Reach out of your social circle and comfort zone
Don’t just design for yourselves, get out of the college bubble and get creative with recruiting. Cold call and email strangers who might be subject matter experts working at NGO’s or organizations dealing with the subject at hand. Get a sense of the environment from stakeholders and experts, who also have direct access to users. And don’t be afraid to try to find users who may only be tangentially related to your user group (e.g. with healthcare projects, they might share characteristics but aren’t exactly your target users).

Here are some stories of how alumni have reached out:


  • While at General Assembly I had to reach out and interview users of a rare disease (Huntington’s Disease) in only one week, so I joined several facebook groups and offered them $20 for a phone interview. Consider offering compensation if your club has the budget for this and you also want to do research extremely quickly.
  • For my current project Compost Connect, I met a woman with the idea to promote community composting at a tech/social impact networking event. She connected me to several of her contacts to interview. We’re now working on the app and startup together (yay!). Try seeing if there are any local events happening where potential community partners might congregate.


  • Leverage “friends of friends” — ask your contacts who they may know. Interviewing these folks can be easier given your mutual connection (less effort to building rapport, more inclined to talk as a favor to mutual friend, etc.)
  • Ask interviewees who else you might contact. This came in very handy during my undergrad design thesis writing, and was fairly easy to do because of reasons mentioned in the step above.
  • Attend local events relevant to your project, for instance an Alzheimer’s Charity Run if you’re designing for individuals with Alzheimer’s.


  • I generally direct people to a survey, not my email. In my study plan, one of my priorities is to create the participant profile and define the mix of participants I am looking for (it should reflect the actual market). I draft a post that I post in communities (reddit, facebook groups, meetup groups, mailing lists) and and include a link to a survey where I determine if they fit my profile mix.
  • I also set aside days dedicated to interviewing, ask them to include their available times on those dates in the survey. Add “The recruiter/researcher will follow up if you match the participant profile” to save your inbox and your time scheduling.
  • Find a conference with attendees that match your target demographic and ask if you can set up a booth. Foot traffic is usually excellent, but you should keep these interviews between 10–20 minutes as folks are generally busy. Surveys are excellent for this scenario. I’ve once set up a table at a hackathon and lured participants with donuts/fruit.
  • Ads are cheap, and a great way to target specific audiences. $20 on Facebook/Twitter/Reddit can get hundreds of clicks. It’s also common for research teams to recruit via craigslist. You’ll get better results if you offer a honorarium.
  • If your tasks are fairly straightforward, or if you have a simple/short survey, Amazon Mechanical Turk is a good way to get lots of data for very cheap and are fairly reliable.

From DFA alumni to students, we hope this helps. Good luck!!

Contributors: Allison Chen, Ada Ng, Sanny Lin (@sannylin), Jeric Bautista (@jericprints), Zong Chua, Justin Wu (@thejustinwu)

Like what you read? Give Allison Chen a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.