DIY Recruiting: How to Find Participants for Your Research

One thing is inevitable in user research — at some point you’re going to have to find some people to take part in it.

Finding them isn’t always easy. It can be time consuming and generate a lot of admin overhead that gets in the way of our daily work, but it doesn’t have to be that way!

Setting up an efficient system for sourcing your research participants ahead of time can save you a lot of unnecessary stress later. It’s not rocket science, but there are a few ways you can make this otherwise tedious task a bit easier.

With recruiting, you usually have two options — you can take it upon yourself to find appropriate participants, or use a dedicated recruitment service. Today we’ll focus on those of us who don’t have the capacity to outsource our recruitment elsewhere.

Recruiting from your current users

Having access to your current user base gives you an instant pool of potential research participants who really care about your product, so make the most of it! Here’s how —

Build a research panel
Building your own research panel involves creating a database of potential research candidates. It requires some time invested upfront, but in the long run it creates a sustainable process for finding research participants quickly and easily. It also helps narrow down your search by making sure you’re reaching out to people who are actually interested in helping make your product great, which tends to lead to higher response rates too.

You can use any platform you want for creating your database. At Optimal Workshop, we created an opt-in form for existing users within our app, which quickly tags relevant users in our CRM (we use Intercom). This makes it super easy to identify potential candidates based on other information — such as account usage or location.

Users interested in joining the panel can do so from their account settings

Here are some useful resources to help in building your own research panel:

Recruit through customer support
Your customer support team deals with people who have a lot to say about your product on a daily basis. Tapping into those working in customer facing roles in your organization can be a great way to identify suitable participants for future research. The people who contact support with their own feedback are likely to be those frustrated enough to complain, or those who have identified opportunities where your product could do better. Both of these groups are likely to appreciate their input being valued. Establish relationships with customer support team members who can forward you people wanting to provide more in-depth feedback, or create a landing page for registering engaged customers to a panel — like Google.

Set up live intercepts
For rapid testing, intercepting users who are currently on your website is a fast and efficient way to find research participants. Tools like Ethnio make it easy to quickly identify and screen people who might be a good fit for your study. Here’s a great article from the Nielsen Norman group on recruiting participants in real time.

Example of a live intercept using Ethnio

Use social media channels
If the organization you work for has a decent following on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, or perhaps a newsletter or company blog, these can be great platforms for advertising any upcoming research opportunities. It’s an efficient way to get the word out there, and also promotes the role of research in your organization, highlighting to your customers that you do ongoing work aimed at improving their experience with your product.

Example of a tweet used to recruit participants

Ask participants for referrals
Getting your existing participants to help with recruiting can be an efficient way to find the people you might need. This can be especially useful when you are researching a specific audience, that is otherwise hard for you to gain access to. In many cases, they’ll be able to refer others who use similar tools or services in their networks.


Recruiting from the general public

You don’t always have easy access to the people you need for your research. You may find yourself looking for a group who doesn’t have any experience with your product, or dealing with very specific demographics that you can’t source yourself. Here are some tips for finding the people you need when this is the case.

Find participants through dedicated panels
Dedicated panels are essentially databases of potential research participants. For a fee, you can screen and recruit the participants you need for your research. In most cases, they will also deal with the logistics of paying out your incentives. As with any online panel, they are often riddled with professional research participants. Ensure you have a well crafted screener, and be prepared for dealing with participants that don’t always represent your target users.

Check out Respondent, Userlove or User Interviews.

Dedicated panels are growing in popularity and making it easier to source the people you need

Use integrated recruitment services
Many companies offer integrated recruitment panels, where you can order participants that fit various demographic criteria directly within the product you are using for your research, for example Optimal Workshop, UserTesting, UsabilityHub, UserZoom, dScout, Validately, WhatUsersDo, SurveyGizmo — you get the drift. If you’re using these platforms for your research, they can help you find the people you need to take part in your studies at an extra cost. Not only are these services convenient, but they let you sit back and wait for your data to roll in, knowing that you’ll be able to recruit the numbers you need for your study.

UsabilityHub makes it easy to recruit participants from their panel

Make the most of online advertising
Craigslist, Facebook ads, notices hung up in public places. All of these options are inexpensive ways to target potential participants. When combined with a good screener, this approach can help generate a pool of candidates for your research with relative ease. Quality can vary when you’re recruiting candidates from the general public, so ensure you are targeting the right users and have clear requirements stated upfront.

Make the most of internal staff
If you don’t have the budget or resources for recruiting participants, or you’re still in the process of making a case for research in your organization, recruiting internally might be your best option.

Using internal staff is not a good idea in the long run, but it can be useful for piloting early prototypes or doing some preliminary research. Ensure your participants have had no involvement in the design of development of your product, and that they still represent your target audience in some way. New hires can be a great way to source people with ‘fresh eyes’.


Recruitment logistics 101

Remember — DIY recruiting = DIY participant management, so here are a couple important reminders.

Track everything!
When you’re reaching out to many people at any given time, carefully tracking where you’re at with your recruiting efforts is key. Among many other things, you’ll need to know who you’ve contacted, who you’ll be meeting, when, where, whether they’ve been paid their incentive, and any other information relevant to your project. Ensure every participant is tracked and any meetings that take place are noted. If you’re meeting with people offsite, it’s a good idea to share these details with someone else in your team, to ensure others know where you are at any given time.

Tips for reaching out
Take the time to carefully draft your research invitation. The style and form will vary depending on the approach you choose to finding your participants, but there are three key things to always include:

  • What is this study for (who you are, your objectives)
  • How long it will take (time, what is required)
  • What’s in it for them ($$, or perhaps something else?)

If you’re recruiting from a general pool of participants, you’ll also want to outline some of the characteristics of the people you are looking for (and verify these through your screener!).

If you’re sending out emails, tracking open and response rates is a good idea — test out different subject lines and see what works best. Here are some tips for recruiting users through email.

Choosing the right incentives
Incentives are a tricky subject. You want to ensure your participants are compensated for the effort required to take part in your study, or you run the risk of low response rates, but you don’t want people who are just in it for the money and may not be as thoughtful in their responses.

Results from a study conducted by Jakob Nielsen show that most of the incentives provided to external participants are monetary.

Unsurprisingly, money makes for the most common type of incentive

For in-person research such as interviews or usability tests, incentives will be higher than those offered for unmoderated studies or online surveys. They will also differ depending on who is taking part in your research. For one-hour interviews or usability tests, you can expect to pay $60 — $100. The average reported by the Nielsen Norman Group was $64–$81 per hour depending on location, with high-level professionals receiving an average of $118 an hour. Keep in mind however, that these are numbers from 2003, and are likely to be higher nowadays.

Think to yourself — “How much would this person earn in an hour?” and ensure you make the incentive something that you yourself would want to receive for the amount of effort required.

For non-monetary incentives, consider things your organization could offer your participants. Perhaps you can provide them with free access to your product, small gifts, vouchers or additional perks.

For unmoderated studies or surveys, you can often get away with alternative forms of compensation. Prize draws work well if you’re sending out a link to a wide range of potential candidates (just make sure you collect their email address).

And don’t underestimate how helpful people can be without any incentives. In some cases, people may be willing to contribute their time to improving your product without the need to be compensated at all.

Monetary incentives for internal participants (i.e. staff) are not necessary — in fact, according to the Nielsen Norman Group, only about 10% of companies offer them (with 1/3 still offering some kind of non-monetary reward).

Want to learn more?
Recruiting participants is complex. Good thing UX folk are thoughtful and kind enough to share some of their wisdom — the great guys at Nielsen Norman Group have a comprehensive guide with 234 (!) practical tips on recruiting your research participants. Good luck!

Still can’t find the answers you need? Join us in the Mixed Methods Slack community where you can crowdsource an answer from 1700+ UX researchers, or post your questions below. We’d love to hear from you.

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