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Research Recruitment

How To Carry Out Research Recruitment On A Budget

Phil Hesketh Photo of Phil Hesketh

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We don’t all have the dreamy budgets of Apple and Google to carry out UX recruitment and research (sadly!). But there are a few different participant recruiting strategies you can use that can help you get the job done if you’re looking for budget-conscious methods. 

These strategies are ideal for small research teams, or if you’re just beginning the UX research journey in your organization.

In this article we’ll be looking at how to recruit participants for a research study if there’s not a lot of budget allocated in your UX research plan.

Why budget is a common challenge for researchers

Getting the necessary budget from stakeholders for UX initiatives has always been a challenge. This is often because many companies don’t consider research a priority. But it can also be related to the fact that researchers don’t effectively tie their research outcomes to overall business goals when they’re pitching these initiatives to stakeholders, so it’s difficult to get buy-in.

Over the last couple of years, organizations have tightened their belts even more around spending. This has made it tougher for research teams to pitch studies and get allocated the money they need to recruit quality participants.

Thankfully, us researchers are a resourceful bunch. And with a bit of creative thinking, it’s absolutely possible to carry out effective participant recruitment, even when you’ve been given a shoestring budget to work with.

In her User Defenders podcast, Becca Kennedy, PhD, UX Strategy Consultant says:

It can definitely be a challenge. Anybody trying to do UX needs to be more user centered, and iteration is the key to everything. Our product is for farmers and growers, so it’s not a problem I can take to Starbucks and get guerilla feedback from people on the fly. I need to talk to people who understand the industry. 

So for that I rely on our existing customers, which is not ideal from a strict research perspective, but from a user feedback perspective it absolutely is, because they’re the people who are already using the product and know what they like, or what’s missing. If you’re working on something that’s more of a general product, you can have good conversations with people on Twitter, Facebook, or walking around a campus. 

So depending on your budget and what your goals are, you can get a lot of feedback quickly and inexpensively. If you know what’s important to get feedback on, you can get pretty far on not a whole lot.

Read more: A 10-Step Framework For Recruiting Participants For Research

How to calculate your participant recruitment costs

As part of your UX research plan, you need to be able to give stakeholders a breakdown of your recruitment process and costs so they can see where the company budget is going.

Your budget should take into account how many participants you need to talk to, how you’ll go about finding them, and what type of research you’ll be doing.

You can estimate how much this will cost with a simple equation of: (Researcher’s hourly rate) x (How long it will take to recruit the necessary number of participants).

According to Nielsen Norman Group, it will typically take 14 hours to recruit participants for each study.

So if only one researcher is recruiting, your calculation might look something like:

$40/hour x 14 = $560 in recruitment costs

This calculation is the baseline for your recruiting budget. There are a lot of moving parts to recruiting, and in reality, finding potential participants, managing the scheduling and screening process, following up, dealing with no-shows, managing personal data, obtaining informed consent, and managing communications can all take a lot longer than 14 hours of time for each researcher involved.

You’ll also need to factor in the cost of incentives for participants, plus any other additional expenses you might incur as part of the recruitment phase of your research.

Once you’ve assessed your approximate recruitment spend, it’s time to think about how you can use that budget to its full extent once it's been approved.

How do you recruit participants in a research study on a shoestring?

On a small budget, using a recruitment agency is out of the question. Cutting back on budget also means cutting back on the time your researchers spend recruiting, so our first tip is to start small.

Start small and iterate

Depending on the type of user research you’re doing, you might only need a handful of participants to give you a breakthrough in design and product development. 

Figuring out your minimal viable number of participants can help you pinpoint low hanging fruit, while only spending what you absolutely have to on recruitment tools, time and costs.

Running batches of small user research groups can also enable you to do more research overall, but in progressive, iterative rounds versus just getting one large batch of feedback.

Opt for remote research methods

In-person research can be costly and time-consuming for both researchers and participants, requiring more human resources, travel costs, and higher incentive amounts to get the necessary target audience to show up for research sessions.

Today’s technology makes it simple to run remote usability tests and interviews with target groups without users needing to leave home. And because they only need to flip open their laptop to participate, you don’t need to offer incentives with a high price tag to get their buy-in.

Develop a research panel

Putting together a research panel can reduce ongoing recruitment costs, as well as fast-tracking your overall research process. By creating a panel and adding more eager participants over time, you can quickly and easily filter for people who meet your ideal criteria for each study.

If you’re using a CRM to manage user research, panels also let you learn more about each participant over time, and you’ll be able to track all of your interactions and feedback from each individual. This has the additional benefit of ensuring you’re not involving people in repetitive studies, or burning them out from too many research projects.

Talk to current users

Your current customers can be a goldmine of information. And they’re just an email or phone call away. 

Talking with existing users can be a great first step if you need to do research around things like:

  • How often people perform certain tasks

  • Finding out about the kind of knowledge, training, or experience required to do certain tasks

  • How someone is using your product

  • When or how often they interact with your product

You can ask your users about any problems they’re having with your product too, which can help you with overall design development and optimization.

Sales and support teams can also be a great source of information when it comes to understanding how users feel about your product. 

It’s their role to talk with customers about objections, feedback, pains, and feature requests — so establishing good communication with these people in your organization can give you a fast, budget-friendly way to gather user research.

Recruit internal participants

If you’re working in a large team or organisation - the ideal participants for research might be right in front of you. 

So if this option is a good fit for the study you’re planning to run, simply reach out to the appropriate person in these internal teams with a quick email about the goals of your study. It can be useful to create an information sheet telling internal team members what you need from them, and how long it will take for them to complete the research.

As a bonus, you probably won’t need to incentivise them to participate either!

Recruit using your email list or newsletter

If you’ve got users on board, chances are you have a good email list (even if you don’t use it as often as you should!). 

Send a blanket email out to your list giving some brief details about your research and who you’d like to speak with, and ask users to contact you if they meet the specific criteria you’re looking for. 

If you publish a regular newsletter, this is the perfect place to add a callout whenever you’re looking to recruit research participants for a new study.

Recruit from online/social media communities

If you’re wondering which platform to recruit participants for research from, try to pinpoint where your ideal sample pool would typically hang out. 

Many organisations have engaged social followings, or run their own online communities such as Slack channels, LinkedIn groups, or Facebook groups. If that’s you — posting a callout for research participants can be a free and simple way to find participants who are eager to help you out.

If you don’t have much of a social following, you can tap directly into online industry communities and groups, or ask in relevant forums such as Reddit to find people that fit your research criteria.

It’s typically better to message people individually when you recruit with this method, as the responses can be tailored, and you’re more likely to get a positive response. 

Writing a research callout in a main feed in any social group can either get lost in the noise, or you’ll get overwhelmed with responses from people who might not be a great fit - especially if you’re offering a good incentive for people who take part.

I’ve found people through Reddit groups specific to what I’m researching. Just ask around. Who do you know who fits this bill? Or is interested in this thing? If you’re doing research in person, you can also use Craigslist. 

The key is to have a good screener in place, just a few questions in a survey up front to make sure whoever you contact is a fit. If somebody is interested in helping with research, I send them across a screener to make sure.

You want to know who you want to talk to, but also who you don’t want to talk to. For example, you might want to talk to people who don’t use your product. You can weed them out that way, and then you’ve got their email address so you can let them know if any other opportunities come up in the future.

Becca Kennedy, PhD, UX Strategy Consultant 

Recruit from your personal or professional network

If recruiting from social networks isn’t in your wheelhouse, recruiting from personal networks can also keep your costs down.

Family, friends, industry contacts, and people you speak to online can all make great participants. And if they’re not a great fit themselves, they can extend your invitation to their own wider networks and help you to find more participants — at no cost to your research budget.

The only downside to recruiting from your personal network is that feedback might be biased in various ways, overly positive or polite, or not as in-depth and critical as it might be from a product user or complete stranger.

Recruit from your company website

Using non-intrusive banners, quick surveys, and even pop-ups can capture interested research participants that are browsing your website. 

These site visitors can be ideal for research in that they’re product and solution aware, and probably aware of your competitors as well, which can make them ideal candidates for giving feedback about product and feature development.

Recruit from referrals

Snowball sampling can also be an effective method to find new research participants. Ask your past and current participants if they know of anybody that might fit your research criteria, and share with them some basic details about what the study will involve.

This strategy can be particularly useful if you’re looking to find niche or specialized participants for your studies.

A simple way to do this is to set up a survey and give your existing participants a shareable link so they can easily refer interested people directly to your research team for screening and interviewing.

Offering incentives when you’re on a budget

Incentives can often be the most costly part of recruiting, especially if studies need to be done in person and incur things like travel and parking costs. 

While you’re not obliged to offer an incentive as a researcher, it builds goodwill and trust with your researchers, and your organisation as a whole, when you offer people something in return for their time and insights.

If you’re seriously strapped for research cash, you’ll need to think outside the box when you’re incentivising. It’s important to consider what you can offer that comes at a low cost to you, but is also valuable to each participant.

Things like subscription or product credits, discount codes for upcoming promotions, or offering priority support or features for a certain period of time might delight your existing users and encourage them to help you out with your studies. You can also investigate whether your company can expense things like gift cards to offset your research expenses.

And if you’ve got some cool company merch leftover from your last event, this can also be a great incentive for people to get involved in your studies. Who doesn’t love free swag!

Wrapping up

If you’re on a tight budget, research options like using recruitment agencies and advertising are off the table. But with a few creative ideas up your sleeve, you can create an efficient recruiting strategy that saves your team time as well as money.

Research panels in particular can ensure you have a pool of ideal, excited, and consenting participants on call for any type of study, whenever you need them.

If you’re looking to carry out UX research or set up a research panel for your company, Consent Kit can help you formalize your research process, save time and budget, and ensure your studies are accessible, compliant, and efficient. Try it free for 14 days.

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