Recruiting for UX research

Clearleft
6 min readSep 22, 2023

Finding the right participants for UX research is vital for ensuring valid results and insights. In this blog post, we’ll cover how to find the right people to run research with.

Originally posted by Luke Hay, here.

A female looking at her laptop and smiling.

In theory, user research should be simple. You just need to ask people the right questions and report back on their answers. In reality, though there’s a lot more to it than that if you want to get insights into user behaviour that you can confidently trust. The first challenge with your research will be recruiting the right people…

While there are some websites or digital products that are aimed at a universal audience, most will need to appeal to more niche groups. Recently I’ve been working on two research projects for universities. One project was researching with existing students while the other was finding out more about prospective students. Although demographically these two groups had a lot in common, their status as current or prospective students gave them very different approaches, outlooks and opinions.

Defining the right audience

When it comes to finding the right participants for your research the first step is to define what these participants look like. There are three areas that you’ll want to consider when it comes to finding the right people.

Demographics

This is typically the starting point for choosing your audience. Narrowing your focus by age, gender, ethnicity and location is a way to begin screening your participants. Other demographic considerations include occupation and income. Demographics are likely to have less of an impact on participant behaviour than their attitudes and behaviours, but can still be a crucial factor in ensuring your test participants reflect your target audience.

Psychographics

Psychographics is the study of consumers based on their activities, interests, and opinions. In the case of your research participants, this can cover a range of areas; anything from their hobbies to their political beliefs. This also covers what participants want to achieve by using your digital product.

Behavioural

How your users act in a digital environment will be a big factor in whether they are the correct participants for your planned study. Considerations here include what type of device they most commonly use, whether they are existing users of your website/app and what level of engagement they have with your company digitally.

Carefully consider each of these three areas when it comes to choosing your audience. You should produce a recruitment brief as a way of noting down all of these requirements in one place. Once you have a recruitment brief in place you can then begin to reach out to potential participants.

Recruiting the right audience

Recruiting participants for your research is often the most challenging part of the process. Once you have a good idea of who you want to talk to, you’ll want to consider three potential avenues for recruitment.

Using third-party recruiters

Companies specialising in recruiting for research offer a good service for finding the right candidates. If you have a clear idea of the type of people that you’d like to talk to, recruiters will go and try to find them for you. These types of companies will often have panels of people lined up, and will also go out and find other candidates through the use of advertising and social media. This can be a good way to find the right participants for your study, but there is a cost involved, and you’ll still need to set aside plenty of time for communicating with the recruiter to ensure everything stays on track.

Client/customer recruitment

If you’re working in-house then you might be able to recruit via your customer or subscriber database. Be careful how you go about contacting them, as you don’t want to fall foul of any GDPR legislation. An alternative option is to recruit via an intercept survey on your website. This would involve showing a pop-up survey to website visitors to ask if they would be interested in taking part in the research. However you’re inviting people, be clear about what you’re asking them to sign up to.

Self-recruiting using your own network

In most cases, you will need direct access to existing customers/users, or you will need the reach of the third-party recruiter. For research that requires a more generic audience, you may be able to self-recruit. If your research is around a product or service that most people use then you may be able to find good participants within your networks. I would recommend avoiding anyone that the research team knows personally, but using friends and family of colleagues can be a cost-effective option if they fit your recruitment criteria.

Recruitment tips

If you recruit for your research you will be likely to face challenges along the way. These tips will help you to ensure that you find the right people and that your research goes smoothly.

  1. Over-book your sessions

This tip is not about recruiting the right people, but it relates to recruiting the right number of people. If you want to run research with ten participants then you’ll want to find eleven or twelve participants in order to cover any drop-outs. While most people are reliable it’s likely that your research session won’t be the number one priority in their life and as a result, people dropping out is inevitable. Having participants on standby just in case ensures that you don’t need to go back to the drawing board if there are drop-outs.

2. Talk to your participants during the recruitment process

The more effort you put into screening your participants the more chance you have of them being right for your study. While it may be easier to confirm people by email I’d recommend talking to them over the phone to get a better ‘feel’ for whether they are who they say they are. There are people who want to take part in any research just to get the incentive. If these people are not genuinely representative of your target audience then they could end up wasting your time, and theirs, if they provide no insight during the research session.

3. Set a pre-research task

Another way to ensure that your potential participants are legit is to ask them to complete a pre-research task. For example, if you’re recruiting students then you might want to ask them to send you a photo of something that helps them with their study. Doing this may help them get into the mindset you require for your research, while simultaneously demonstrating that they are interested, engaged and willing to put some effort in. This is a good example of the foot-in-the-door technique and has proven to be effective in minimising ‘no-shows’ for our research.

4. Make sure your participants are prepared

In the lead-up to the sessions, you’ll want to send out reminders or, better still, speak to people over the phone again. When you confirm the session you’ll also want to make sure that your participants are prepared. This involves giving them an outline of what you’ll be covering, confirming the timings and duration of the session and also ensuring that they have everything they need to take part. This is likely to involve some kind of tech check in order to make sure that they can join a Zoom call on the device that they’re planning on using.

5. Have a plan b

If you’ve followed the advice so far then hopefully you’ll be on the right track to getting the right participants for your research. Not all research projects go to plan though, and you may still have some recruitment struggles even if your process is refined. In this instance, it’s always good to have an answer to the question “What will we do if we don’t get the participants that we want?”. Answers to this question may involve trying other recruitment methods, scaling back the research to include fewer participants or even pivoting your approach and using another form of research.

At Clearleft we’ve been running research since the company was formed in 2005 and recruiting the right people is still the biggest research challenge that we consistently face. We’ve learned a lot over the years though, and the tips in this post should help you to get the most from your research by ensuring that your participants are representative of your target audience.

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