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For UX designers and design teams, research with stakeholders and users is critical. However, accessing research participants isn’t as easy as it sounds. For both professional and amateur researchers finding people to participate in studies can be an elusive task. We often hear about studies and their findings, but we don’t hear as often how researchers recruit study participants.
Researchers can choose from a variety ways to find participants. Many factors determine the best method to use. This includes resources such as time and money, the research method you’re using, the type or characteristics of participants you want to recruit, and the accessibility of these types of participants. In this post, I’ll remove some of the mystery and provide guidance to those interested in recruiting participants for qualitative UX studies.
You can use incentives to increase the likelihood of participation in any of these methods of recruitment. Use of incentives is usually a personal choice. Do you feel incentivized participants provide skewed or biased data? I don’t have any issues with providing incentives. An incentive can be a small token of appreciation ($5 gift card) or something more substantial ($200 or more depending on time needed and type of participant.
I’ve provided guidance for each method based on my experience with incentives.
Identifying And Interviewing Key Internal Stakeholders
You gain insight when you interview key colleagues, clients, and other relevant stakeholders of a project. Particularly at the beginning of a project. This is a great opportunity to understand everyone’s role, what their vision and hopes are for a project or product, and how you might incorporate their experience into the rest of the project. You can increase buy-in and make people feel like part of the process by including stakeholder interviews in any project. I use the term internal stakeholder broadly to describe individuals who have a vested interest in a product or project who are connected to your organization or the product in some way. Many of these internal stakeholders might also be users of the product you are interviewing them about.
When To Use It
You can always look for opportunities to interview stakeholders and colleagues to learn more. This is especially useful at the beginning of a project. You can learn expectations for a product, background information on what led to the current status of the project, and goals and hopes for the future. Checking in with stakeholders throughout a project will keep them aware of how things are progressing and allow you to get their feedback. I’ve found this is helpful for building trust with stakeholders and making them feel included in the process.
How You Might Do It
You can often arrange interviews with key stakeholders yourself if they are internal to your company. You’ll identify who is relevant to your project, including project team members, and invite them to an interview. You can contact them to schedule a time, or look to schedule using your company’s shared calendar platform (e.g., Outlook or G Suite). You should know ahead of time how long you need to schedule and how you will interview the participant (in-person or remote) so you can share this information with them at scheduling.
Identifying and interviewing stakeholders becomes more complicated when you don’t have direct access to scheduling yourself. If your project team is part of a larger organization, you might need to ask colleagues in other departments to help identify and schedule stakeholders. If you are on a project team with outside partners or have external stakeholders, you will often need someone to facilitate identification and scheduling of interviews. I’ll cover some additional challenges for recruiting stakeholders and others through your clients in the identifying participants through a client section.
Gain insight into roles, backgrounds, and history of stakeholders’ involvement with a product or issue, potentially quick to schedule, low to no cost outside of time, can be done remote or in-person, talking to customer/user-facing stakeholders might provide some insight into what users think of a product.
Difficult to identify everyone you want to participate, might include people at high-levels who are hard to reach, scheduling if not doing it yourself, scaling down if resources are limited, does not replace research with users, many stakeholders are too close to their product to be objective.
I typically don’t provide an incentive if internal stakeholders are participating during work hours.
I worked on a project with a bank that wanted to design an online onboarding experience for new customers. We needed to understand what the current (non-digital) onboarding experience was. We wanted to document available resources to pull into the onboarding experience. Lastly, we needed to build trust with partners who we were going to rely on to champion the experience we created.
We relied on word of mouth to learn who we needed to speak with. First, we interviewed the people we were closest to and asked them who else they considered necessary for us to speak with. We spoke with people in numerous US states, both remotely and in-person. We were able to speak with 30 people in three weeks (this was not a project we were dedicating full time). Occasionally, we spoke to people who were not relevant to our specific purpose. There were two key reasons we were given names of some folks who weren’t relevant:
They were higher up executives with little knowledge of what we were exploring
The people referring them didn’t understand/effectively convey what we were trying to accomplish, so they volunteered to participate in something not aligned with their role
We found our most common difficulties were in scheduling and getting people to reply to our initial emails. We were trying to schedule an hour to speak with people who spend most of their days traveling and in meetings. Many of them had personal assistants managing their calendars. Some didn’t have an opening to speak with us for weeks after our initial request. Most people did want to make the time to speak with us. They viewed our project as one with high strategic importance in the long-term health of their company. We also had many people reschedule due to unforeseen conflicts involving client needs arising.
We were able to paint a clearer picture of the bank’s onboarding experience and what resources were available. We were able to understand what (some) of the leadership viewed as the potential future for an onboarding experience with new customers and what their perceptions of shortcomings were for the current onboarding experience. We were able to identify gaps in knowledge that required additional future research and education. We made connections with critical internal advocates who walked away with a better understanding and appreciation of the experience we were creating. We would not have been able to achieve these outcomes through a survey or through other means of recruiting participants. Later, we were able to approach these same stakeholders to have them provide feedback on the designs for the onboarding experience we created.
Identifying Participants Through A Client
Many potential research participants are unavailable to the general public. You will find situations where you don’t have direct access to recruiting relevant participants. This is particularly true if you work for a design consultancy/studio, or as part of a shared services team within a large organization. For example, if your client is a widget manufacturer and their product is a widget warehouse product supply application, you will need to access their staff in order to understand their current pain points and needs. You won’t have an easy time finding relevant participants using the population you have access to. You want to conduct research and usability testing with participants who will become the end user of the application, which again means you’d need to access this population through your client.
When To Use It
In addition to the reasons given in the previous section for recruiting stakeholders, when you have to reach specific populations, need opinions from specific people, and want to make your client-stakeholders feel like part of the process. When you don’t have direct insight or access to critical research participants when you are looking to build relationships beyond the project team you are working with, when you want to include a diverse set of individuals covering relevant areas of the product you’re working on.
How To Do It
Work closely with your client or person you are collaborating with to identify the right people for the project you are on. Your project will dictate the exact specifications of roles you need. This includes Product Owners, VPs, Business Analysts, and Users. I often provide a script or email language for my clients to use for recruiting participants. I explain the purpose of the research, how you were made aware of the participant (e.g., Jane from accounting gave me your information) how long the conversation is expected to take, potential dates of availability, incentive (if any), prep work required (if any).
You should provide your client with a screener clearly stating:
How many of each type of participant you want to participate
Details you want to know ahead of time (e.g., years using the product, industry)
Factors leading to disqualification from the study (e.g., less than one year of experience with the product)
Bonus: Many organizations keep data on their users. Your client might be able to screen their database and provide you research participants. However, when I’ve used this in the past, there are often many permissions required and processes to gain access to customers. This can add a significant amount of time to your project.
I am always clear to my clients that scheduling participants is one of the largest hurdles to a project’s timeline. Working with others’ schedules is complicated. You should make it clear to your clients how to recruit, and the need to start recruiting as soon as possible.
You get specific people close to a project or product, you learn about long-term and short-term goals directly from the people you work with, you are able to ask to follow up questions that might inform projects well beyond your current relationship, you learn the history of the product or organization, you can reach relevant people you don’t have direct access to, you gain insight into roles, backgrounds, and history of stakeholders’ and users’ involvement with an issue, you will find talking directly to the users of the product provides context and texture you wouldn’t find from someone without similar knowledge.
This can be time-consuming, requires a clear communication of purpose, you might end up talking to people less relevant if your client doesn’t screen effectively, less control over scheduling, lack of control over how information is shared with participants.
Incentives – I typically don’t provide an incentive if they are from the client and participating during work hours. I’d provide an incentive if they have recruited users who are coming in on an off day or outside of work hours. You might also have a larger incentive but only give it to a couple randomly selected participants.
I worked for a team looking at redesigning a digital report for a large mortgage lender. Many other banks and loan providers do business under the umbrella of this company. We needed to identify a specific type of user, one who: worked for a bank under the parent company and used the report as part of their daily tasks.
The client wanted us to interview 30 individuals with roles interacting with the report. They identified a handful of these individuals upfront, and then put out a call for participation to identify the remaining individuals. There were numerous layers of communication through relationship managers as well as permissions and disclosures the client needed to handle with each participant.
We were able to complete over 30 remote (over the phone) interviews in the month we were allotted to collect data. Our client arranged and scheduled each interview. Our most common difficulties were similar to those I gave in the previous case study, scheduling and relevancy of participants. We were interviewing people who spend their entire workday running the report and using the data to inform their decisions; busy people with limited flexibility of daytime work hours. We made ourselves available at any time a participant had availability in order to solve this. This created drawbacks in scheduling other meetings unrelated to working on the project.
Some of our participants forwarded the invitation to others they thought should be on the interview as well. We would find this out when more than one person would join the call. We were initially caught off guard when we had a call intended for one person take place with four participants at once. We created a separate multi-participant protocol to account for this occurring on future calls, which it did. I recommend expecting this to happen regardless of who is recruiting your participants. It’s difficult to control what happens, once you send out an invitation to the wild.
We used data from our interviews to understand the current behaviors, frustrations, and needs of users. We also presented later participants with sample designs in order to get feedback on report layout and feature changes. We delivered a redesigned report that exceeded client expectations and became a reference piece in their quest to get further funding for research and design projects.
Paying A Recruitment Firm (When You Have An Accessible Population)
Recruitment firms offer services ranging from participant screening and recruitment, facilities to conduct research, recording your sessions, and much more. You can use a recruitment firm when you are conducting research with populations you believe you can reach through contact with the general public. For example, if you are conducting usability testing on an online banking application. You can expect most people familiar with banking transactions (e.g., making a deposit or bill pay) should successfully use your application. Even if they don’t currently use your bank.
I’ve used a number of firms over the past few years. Most of them offer similar services.
When To Use It
When you don’t have direct access to potential participants when you want to have a third party screen your participants, when your sample is available through the general public, when you want to have someone handle recruitment, scheduling, and day-of-research preparation.
How To Do It
You will need to create the screener the recruiter will use. You decide in advance how many of each type of participant you will want. You’ll want to include a number of “floaters” in your recruitment as well. Floaters are people who meet the requirements of the study and are willing to show up for participation in case some of the other participants don’t show up. Floaters are typically compensated at higher levels because they are committing to spend two or three hours sitting around in case they are needed.
You’ll also need to provide the screener with enough advance notice as the recruiter requires. I’ve found this is two weeks in advance for most studies, and three weeks in advance for more complex studies. All recruitment firms offer participants an incentive, usually cash, to participate in a study. You will have to be ok with the fact your participants are receiving money to participate. I haven’t found this to be problematic, but you should be prepared to defend why you don’t think this will add any additional bias to your data.
Very detailed screening, don’t have to find people, often have a facility you can use, will record audio and video as needed, will recruit additional participants in case some don’t show up.
Cost, the time needed in advance if you have a difficult to reach population, participants trying to game the system.
Incentives – Recruitment firms almost always compensate the people they recruit. You will pay the recruitment firm a set fee they pay to participants.
I worked for a team wanting to define the digital needs and behaviors of specific types of Financial Advisors. The client did not want to expose their brand during any of the research, so they did not want to facilitate the recruitment. The client wanted the interviews to pull participants from more than one major city in the US. We worked with a recruitment firm to identify and recruit participants, as well as to conduct the interview sessions.
We worked with the client to create a detailed screener with items meant to refine the population to the specific participants we wanted for the study. The recruitment firm asked for three weeks to find 15 participants for the first city in our study. The usual turn around when working with the firm was two weeks with less specialized participants. We were also advised to provide a higher incentive, over double what we typically offered, due to the probability we were asking participants to step away from work and the perceived value of their time.
We were able to interview 15 participants over the course of two days. We found a few of the participants didn’t actually meet the qualifications we’d screened for. They had manipulated their responses to qualify. Our client was unhappy with this. We were able to use the floaters to replace the participants who didn’t truly qualify. We were also able to get a refund on what we’d paid to recruit the unqualified participants.
Ultimately, we reached our goal of interviewing the right number of participants in the right amount of time, and produced a report on needs and behaviors for our client.
We would not have been able to access this population without the use of the recruitment firm. The client was unwilling to expose their brand and therefore unwilling to identify participants from their contact list. We would have spent more time and money than the project allowed if we were left to recruit participants. We don’t have contact lists or the ability to easily identify specialized populations through our own resources. We still experienced frustration with the lack of initial quality participants the recruitment firm provided. In general, we’ve had positive experiences with recruitment firms, but the more specialized the population, the more likely you will find some duds.
Guerilla Recruiting (When You Want To Find People In The Wild)
You can utilize public spaces to recruit potential study participants. Guerilla research is a term for quick and dirty research conducted with people as they go about their daily tasks (in the wild so to speak). The term is meant to reflect a context in which you are pressed for resources. However, you can benefit from using this method of recruiting even when you have resources for other methods. Sometimes collecting data from people when they are in specific settings is the most appropriate method.
You should determine a space you want to recruit participants for a logical reason. Let’s say you’re designing a smartphone application meant to help people track their workouts at the gym. You would want to recruit participants from that setting, entering or exiting the gym. If you wanted to test out a new form of electronic payment, you’d want to be present in a setting where transactions take place.
When To Use It
When you have little time or budget, when you have access to relevant populations, when you only want to get quick feedback from a few people, when you can spend 20 minutes or less per participant, when you have a product related to a specific physical space (e.g., an art museum tour application).
How To Do It
Find a location, get permission if needed, create a script. I’ve previously written a detailed article on the specifics of recruiting participants in public.
Quick execution, the potential for multiple locations if you have the resources, small or large sample sizes, accessing relevant populations, compatible with multiple research methods.
Little ability for screening, approaching people takes practice and skill, potentially inclement weather if outside, a lot of standing around.
I’d base the incentive on the amount of time and type of activity. For example, I might give a product discount code for something taking a minute or less. A $5 gift card if you are taking a few minutes of their time.
I worked on a project examining the use of technology in library settings. Specifically, we wanted to understand the usability of a system for finding and locating materials within the library. We wanted to work with people who use a library. We needed to test inside of the library because the last part of testing involved physically locating the material.
We sent two researchers to spend multiple days at the library while it was open for patrons. We stood with clipboards at the entrance of the library. We asked patrons if they would spend a few minutes with us participating in our study. We then observed them using the system to search for an item and asked them to locate the material based on where the system told them it should be located.
Our biggest challenge was long periods of time where there were no new patrons coming into the library. We wanted to complete 30 to 40 sessions using three different scenarios. We had budgeted to spend one week onsite to get this many responses. We had to extend our timeline for the following week to reach our goal.
We were able to suggest improvements in the interface, terminology, and an explanation of where materials were located. We would not have had similar findings if we hadn’t been on location at a library and we might not have had as valuable insights if we used people who were not library patrons.
Friends And Family (Low On Time And Budget)
Sometimes, you might have very little opportunity to engage in research. There are many reasons for this, time, budget, or your working for a client who refuses to allow research as part of the project plan. The designers I’ve worked with still want to have some type of feedback to shape their thinking. You can still look to gather some meaningful data from those you have closest access to. Perhaps you are on a project where you are working on a product that is relevant to your coworkers or friends you have easy access to. You might ask a few of them to participate in interviews about the product.
Friends and family are the definition of a convenience sample, and should only be used when no other options exist. This is the most biased and least rigorous way of collecting data. However, you can still benefit from insights into experiences you might otherwise not get. You can use friends and family to participate in interviews or usability testing as a means of accessing informing your design. I strongly recommend conducting additional research, using one of the other methods of finding participants, as your design progresses.
When To Use It
As a last resort, when you have no budget, little time, yet you want to know something about the context or users you are designing for when you have access to relevant people to participate in the study. Background information of your participants.
How To Do It
Reach out to others you and your team know; you can include social media to distribute the call to participate, schedule a time to speak or send an email explaining what you’re asking participants to do (you can also distribute survey links this way)
Positive – you will get some feedback, almost instant, low budget
Most limited pool of participants, possibly less reach, you’re are relying on favors, less ability to screen for specific characteristics, introducing a larger bias due to familiarity with participants.
I would incentivize based on time and budget. A $25 gift card is much less expensive than what you’d pay for a participant from a recruitment firm, but friends and family might find this amount acceptable for up to an hour of time.
I was part of a project team responding to a (paid) request for proposals (RFP) from a major vacation industry company. We had two weeks to turn around our response, including design concepts to show our thinking. Most of our team had no experience in using the services from this specific industry. We needed to find out more information to help inform our response. We didn’t have the resources to undertake our typical research process of finding and interviewing stakeholders or representative end users. Instead, we reached out to friends and family members who stated they’d had experience in this vacation activity within the past three years.
We emailed our staff and asked if anyone had friends or family members with this qualification who’d be willing to engage in brief phone conversations about their experience. We conducted interviews with seven people over the course of the next two days. Our designers were able to use the insights we gained to better understand the types of needs users might have while vacationing. Our concepts attempted to address some of the issues our participants stated existed when they had experienced while vacationing.
Although we didn’t win the long-term work, our team was able to place among the top candidates. We credited the participation of friends and family in our research as part of what helped our design stand out in a positive way. We were later awarded separate work from the team we presented to for the initial RFP.
The table below provides a summary of key characteristics for each participant recruitment method I’ve covered in this article.
Ability to pre-screen participants
Ability to access participants
Varies – harder to reach specific populations
Friends & Family
Easy depending on topic
Table 1: Characteristics of common research participant recruitment methods
We need to access users and potential users in order to effectively conduct research. I’ve covered a number of common ways you can find research participants. Each has certain strengths and weaknesses. You’ll want to become familiar with each of these and adapt your approach based on your product, budget, and timeline.
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