What is participant recruitment and how to overcome the challenges?

How to recruit the 'right' people for your user research.

Ask the nearest researcher what one of their most persistent pain points in conducting user research and usability testing is and we can almost guarantee that recruiting participants is up there near the top.

In last year’s State of UX in the Enterprise survey, we asked researchers what phase is the most challenging part of their UX team’s process, and coming in at number one with 47% of the votes was *drumroll* recruiting participants.

It’s because of this that we’ve created a brand new ebook called, quite simply, Participant Recruitment 101. In this guide, we’ll walk you through all the different elements that go into recruiting the right participants, including how many you’ll need, how much to compensate them, as well as different methods, tips, and participant recruitment software recommendations to make recruiting far less stressful.

In the meantime, if you need more of a refresher as to why you should care about this vital part of user research, here’s an excerpt from our guide…

What is participant recruitment?

Participant recruitment is the act of defining, finding and inviting representatives of your target audience into your user research or usability study.

Okay that’s out of the way now so you can stop rolling your eyes at me. Perhaps a better set of questions would be: “Why is this important” and “Why do so many people find this difficult?”

Why is participant recruitment so important to get right?

I’m taking for granted that if you’re reading this your organization has already bought into the importance of testing, so it’s similar to the adage “garbage in, garbage out.” This is the idea that incorrect input results in a faulty output.

In this case, however, the input would be the insights and results from people that aren’t the people your products and services are aimed at.

For example, if your product is aimed at selling houses you don’t want input from people who are not looking at buying houses or are incapable of it. This can result in costly redesigns that would have been faster, easier and cheaper had more accurate insights been captured and used early on in the process.

“But any input at all is better than none!” There is absolutely some validity in that, but if I am in desperate tooth pain I would prefer a dentist over my mechanic even if his tools could technically do the job.

But why is participant recruitment so difficult?

As to why so many find this to be so difficult, well, there’s a multitude of reasons.

Perhaps your product/service is niche and therefore the general population just can’t offer very many of your target users.

Perhaps stakeholders simply don’t see the ROI of investing time, effort and money into recruiting when they heard from a guy who mentioned a webinar where a woman read a quote that five users will show you 85% of the most common usability issues.

Perhaps you’re a team of one and don’t have the bandwidth or you’re working in agile sprints and simply don’t have the time to adequately spend finding the right people.

So yeah, there are many reasons; some of which we can help you mitigate or even overcome while others will simply be a hurdle to plan around. We know that recruiting can be tricky (which is why there is an entire industry built around it) but it is not impossible. You can do this and we’re here to help.

Five pro tips to remember when recruiting participants

There’s plenty to take into consideration when recruiting for user research, and we go into much greater depth in our ebook, however for now we thought we’d share these five tips to bear in mind when gathering users for research:

1) Over recruit

Let it be known that if you need 10 qualitative think-out-louds and recruit 10 people in advance that at least one of them will need to take their dog to the vet because it found the leftover candy from Halloween.

Don’t worry the hypothetical dog is fine. Your tidy plan to get 10 results within the time constraints of your sprint? Not so much. That’s why we recommend to always have a few more in waiting should the need arise.

2) Account for recruiting time in your planning

I’m willing to bet at some point in your career you bore witness to a research planning session in which recruiting was vastly underrated in terms of how long it would take.

And by all means – if you reliably get the amount of participants you need for every sprint and test, please, feel free to be smug in your achievement. But for the rest of us, be sure to take into consideration typical recruitment concerns when planning your research and how that will affect the amount of time it takes to find and invite participants into your study.

We recommend starting by asking questions such as: Are they rare? Do you have some on file? Are you trying to get live users from your site? Historically did it take a lot of effort? Is this an entirely new segment? Are you doing this in-house or are you using a panel vendor?

3) Always use a screener

Seriously you should use screeners. Trust us on this one. Also don’t buy sushi from gas stations. Trust us on that one, too. Even if you’re doing live intercepts from a page on your website that is literally a fan club, use a screener. It will help safeguard your data and ensure that all the work you or the panel provider has done isn’t wasted by having to go back and vet participants, re-recruit (see above) and parse through your data.

Use the screener.

4) Is there technical knowledge that’s needed?

Sometimes it’s taken for granted that participants would need to have some kind of technical knowledge or expertise. If you’re testing a remote prototype, for example, you may want to consider explaining what all they would need in order to access and interact with it. If there’s a piece of hardware or physical equipment
this doubly applies.

However, check your bias on the kinds of technical expertise you’re assuming someone has or doesn’t have. My grandma’s meme-filled text messages are on point, while my dad has to ask for help finding emojis. If technical experience is important, add it to the screener and be sure to include directions if needed.

5) Take compensation into account

You have to show respect for people’s time. Full stop. Typically this means the longer the study, the more in-depth it is, and the more technical the task means that a higher compensation will most likely be needed. If you’re not getting the number of completes you need in the expected time you’ve allotted, take a fresh look at what you’re asking and what you’re offering in return.

However, be aware that not everyone is motivated by money. If you found that highly sought-after left-handed doctor do you think she would be motivated by a $20 gift card for her valuable time? Could there be another way to get her interested? Maybe she doesn’t want the gift card but would be delighted if it were donated to a charity of her choice in her name.

Participant recruitment 101

For an in-depth and entertaining guide to all the different elements that go into recruiting the right participants, download our comprehensive new ebook.