Relational Recruiting: How We Learn from Hard-to-Reach People

After connecting with a friend of a friend, Roaring Fork school district became a key resource for research during a project in Colorado. Through relational recruiting, that one contact turned into dozens and a full research schedule.

A big part of our human-centered design process at Greater Good Studio involves talking to people — particularly potential users of the services, programs, and tools that we create. These conversations take us into our users’ lives, giving us insight and inspiration for design.

Although they play a central role in our work, our conversation partners (aka research participants) aren’t always easy to find.

When recruiting is slow-going, we keep our spirits up by remembering we’re engaging with an important social challenge, and sometimes these very challenges keep our participants invisible. In addition, our descriptions of users to learn from are often specific — maybe someone who has a connection to the arts, was formerly incarcerated, lives in a particular Chicago zip code, and is open to meeting with us.

Contextual research with our participants often involves spending time in their homes and documenting with photos or video. That can be a big ask coming from someone new.

This specificity makes mass recruiting a lot harder. So rather than using methods that work in commercial settings for common products, we’ve tailored a recruiting process that fits within our social sector context.

Relational Recruiting: You may already do it

We call our process “relational recruiting.” Underneath that fancy label, you’ll recognize that it looks a whole lot like the time-honored concept of asking around.

Think of your everyday life: if you want to know which neighborhood cafe is best for reading, who’s an affordable plumber, or even where to send your child to daycare, you ask people you know and trust. And they refer you to who they know, who may refer you to who they know, and so on.

In a research context, mirroring that approach might seem simplistic, or maybe even haphazard, but it’s actually a really effective and intentional way to reach people who are often left out of research processes and who represent the users that we serve.

When we were recruiting in rural Colorado for a project, for example, I didn’t personally know anyone in the area. But we needed to find elementary school teachers who were focusing on writing with students from low-income families. Our client knew someone who connected us to more people, and then those people sent our screening survey to more people. Eventually we reached teachers and after school volunteers that the client didn’t directly know. And those people referred us to more.

A simple, forwardable email with a survey link makes it easy for people to spread the word to their networks.

Maybe this sounds straightforward enough on the surface. But over the years, as we’ve coached organizations and taught aspiring designers, we’ve heard that — at first — the prospect of finding research participants this way can seem scary and overwhelming.

It doesn’t have to be!

In fact, if you try this method, you’ll quickly find that it’s easier than you think.

Getting Started + Making it Work

Think about who you know, and who your partner knows. Sounds obvious right? But in a professional context, stepping through this process can seem new. Start by reaching out to people in your circle and in your client’s circle, and explain what kind of person you’re hoping to find.

Quick example: Here in Chicago, for a project we did with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, we needed to learn from tenants who had good relationships with their landlords. So we asked our client team to think through the people they knew. And we ended up connecting with one of their volunteers whose mom had a great relationship with her landlord. We had a screening call with the mom and set up a time to meet.

Participant recruited. You never know who you know until you ask people you know who they know.

A great place to start is with people you have easy access to — In this case, MTO’s volunteers were just a room away.

Think hardest about the first link in the chain. That volunteer who connected us with her mom wasn’t a cold call. The volunteer already had a great relationship with the MTO, and was happy to help. Choose a contact you think will be open or even excited to hear from you. Here’s why: First, we need them to actually open that email or answer that phone call, and quickly. Second, the ambiguous idea of “research” can be an instant turnoff for some, so this person has to already like you enough to keep reading or listening to learn more. Not only that, we’re asking for help to find someone who will invite us to spend hours in their home, or ride with them to a doctor’s appointment, or go to daycare with their child. Not the kind of stuff you usually expect someone new to you to ask.

Another tip: Keep an eye out for great connectors who can make ideal first links in the chain. Some characteristics of a great connector: They know a bunch of types of people. They are especially friendly, and they have the personality of someone who likes to meet people and remember people. And when they ask for a favor, people are likely to respond, even if they have fallen out of regular touch.

Pay your research participants, but don’t make it all about the money. It’s certainly appropriate to compensate people for their time and effort, and when we pay people (usually in the form of gift cards), we make sure it’s not a trivial amount. But we also want to make sure that their interest in participating isn’t just about getting paid. There’s a lot of generosity and authenticity inherent in working in the social sphere, so we try to not make the money the “headline” — our interaction shouldn’t feel transactional. Our research conversations are often personal, less “Tell me about the last time you washed your dog?” and more “Tell me more about how your relationship with your doctor changed when you were diagnosed with HIV.” These questions are only appropriate to ask a relative stranger within a genuine, authentically connected conversation. The most important sort of capital here is social capital. By connecting with the research participants via a trusted party, you can piggyback on the trust and familiarity that already exists. That’s important, because when learning about sensitive and personal subjects, building trust quickly is key — it’s what literally gets us in the door and the conversation started.

Remember that connecting is just step one. While we rely on relational recruiting to make the initial connections, we pair it with at least one round of screening to find participants best suited for the project. For participants who likely use a computer or smartphone, starting with an online survey is an easy way to gather some qualifying facts: “Do you work in Colorado? Are you an elementary school teacher? How are you working on writing skills with your students?” Following up with a short phone call helps screen for participants who are engaged and comfortable sharing about their experiences. Whatever your process, make sure your connectors know so they can set expectations for their friends and friends-of-friends.

The results from a recruiting survey help you screen for eligibility and availability before reaching out for phone conversations.

The Importance of Alignment

So is this all about tapping into your social circles for research purposes? Won’t people get tired of you asking for research favors? Here’s something to keep in mind: Most people want to help, but they often aren’t invited to participate.

Many people feel honored to be in the position of having their voice impact something, particularly for projects like ours that are about doing good in the world. And we take care to only recruit people whose interests align with those of our project. For example, it makes sense that the mother of a student with autism might be interested in sharing about her family’s experience to help us make better digital tools for students with autism. If we instead reached out to her about something else entirely, I wouldn’t be surprised if that email went unanswered.

Being very specific about recruiting through chains of aligned people has the added benefit of helping avoid wearing out any one person — it’s unlikely that any one of your contacts is perfectly aligned with the next five projects you have in mind. Save that connection for when the challenge area is one they’ll be really excited to help you out with.

It’s what makes this process a genuine engagement with people you know. And people you don’t know — yet.