Research Recruitment & Research Ops
A 10-Step Framework For Recruiting Participants For Research
Written by: Phil Hesketh
Finding high-quality research participants is one of the keys to helping your organization develop better products and provide a great customer experience. But what does recruiting participants for research mean?
Whether you’re recruiting for the first time, or you need to refine your recruitment process, we’re going to walk you through how to find the right participants for each study and ensure you’ve got a diverse and inclusive sample of users to learn from.
Common challenges with recruiting participants
Digging deep to solve real-world user problems can be seriously time-consuming, and the many variables involved in participant recruitment can make this process frustrating for researchers.
When you’re developing an ethical and compliant UX research process, you’ll need to factor in challenges such as:
Time frames - a tight research timeline might restrict the type and number of participants you can recruit, and how you go about finding them
Channels - different research projects require different sourcing channels and participant demographics, so finding the right users to talk to can often feel overwhelming
Numbers - it can be difficult to find enough ideal participants to meet your criteria for some research initiatives, especially if you have very defined needs
User testing tools - these can make life easier, but they can also be expensive and you can only recruit research participants and talk with them inside these third-party platforms, leading to gaps in your internal data
Participant burnout - using the same recruiting channels and participants can result in dwindling user motivation, which in turn can result in diminished returns for your research studies. It can get especially tricky when you’re running ongoing projects that require long-term participant management
Hard to scale - unless you have a solid process for participant and data management in place, it can be difficult to manage all the moving parts you need to scale your research
These challenges can be an ongoing source of stress for researchers, so it’s important to create a defined process that can make life easier.
10 steps to recruiting participants for a research study
So - how do you recruit participants for a research study without losing your sanity? Breaking the recruitment process down into simple steps can help you reduce the overwhelm if you’re just starting out—and it can help you fill the gaps in your existing process if you’re looking for a more streamlined way to approach this task.
1. Start with your goals
You should always begin the recruitment process with clearly defined goals in mind. This will help you narrow down the criteria of people you’d like to talk to, and give you an idea of where to find them.
Creating an initial research plan can be helpful to ensure researchers stay focused as they structure and action the recruiting process for each study.
Read more: How To Create A UX Research Plan
2. Decide who to recruit (and who not to)
Once you’ve got your objectives and hypotheses clear, you can more easily determine the criteria of participants who can give you the kind of feedback you need to gather.
As well as recruiting your ideal users, it’s also helpful to define who you _don’t _want to speak to.
Your panel needs to be composed of people who are representative of your customers, so you need to get this part right or your research findings won’t hit the mark.
Factors to consider when deciding who will make the “right” participants can include things like:
- Specific user behaviors
- Experience with your product
- Experience with similar products
3. Define the number of participants you’ll need
For each study, you’ll need to consider whether quality or quantity is more important when you begin recruiting. If you don’t have enough participants, you might not be able to get enough insight into people’s needs and behaviors to help you understand their experience with your product.
Your panel size will depend on factors such as:
- The type of research you’re doing (e.g. qualitative or quantitative)
- The channels you’re recruiting from
- The methods of research you intend to use
- The stage you’re at with product development
- The time frame you have to gather responses
You might only need a handful of participants if you’re doing user testing on your app, but if you need to collect data with surveys or interviews, your pool might need to include hundreds or thousands of people to gather enough information.
For any type of research, it’s always a good idea to overestimate the sample size you need. This can ensure you have enough people to contact in case of no-shows.
Having backup participants (aka “floaters”) can also benefit you by reducing the time and cost of recruitment, and by ensuring you fill all your research slots.
4. Choose your recruitment channels
What are the methods for recruitment of participants? These days you have a ton of options to choose from, and this is where things can get overwhelming.
Finding the right recruitment channels can take up a lot of resources, and it’s often one of the most frustrating parts of research, especially if you’re working with a small team, have tight budget constraints, or are short on time.
Asking yourself whether you need to recruit internally or externally can help you more easily decide where to find the best people to talk with.
Will you be looking for people that already use your product? And if so, will they be occasional users or power users? Do you need to speak with people who’ve never heard of your organization or service, but are familiar with your industry or type of software? Or could you simply get the insights you need from random strangers on the street?
Thankfully, today’s technology and recruitment tools give you a lot of options to help you find who you need.
Recruit participants for research internally
If you’re wondering how to recruit for research studies using the tools and information you already have, recruiting from your existing user base is a great place to start. These methods make the most sense if you’re running studies which require feedback from people with in-depth knowledge of your product, or who have used similar software or services before.
Here are some of the ways you can find and recruit participants from your existing customer database.
- Software tools - Many tools in your existing tech stack can act as roadmaps to effective recruitment for research studies.
The first challenge comes from finding suitable users who I suspect would be willing to participate in UX research. I use product analytics tools like Mixpanel to take a look at heavy users and most recent users. I compile a list of these users and match this up to the UX project I’m working on. Most recently, I wanted to find users who use our Chinese AI voices (we are an AI voiceover tool).
I put a lot of thought into the emails I send, and I personalize every single email. I have to make sure that the subject line is catchy (sometimes I say “Fancy $50 to chat about X and PlayHT?”) and the body of the text is concise but persuasive enough.
We also have an in-app feedback box where users can drop feedback. I track the feedback and find users that fit my participant profile (B2B users)”
Megan Johnson, Senior Product Content Marketing Manager, Play.HT
Customer support / sales teams - Users that have directly contacted customer support (to either complain or congratulate you on your product) are often quite willing to participate in research. Your support staff are in touch with customers every day, and these are the people who have something to say. This makes them great candidates for qualitative user research—if you can align with the support team.
Similarly, if anyone that fits your participant profile passes through your sales pipeline, (even if they’re not a customer) you can ask your sales team if that person would be willing to chat about your research study.
Email list or newsletter - if you have an email list, chances are that you have a lot of subscribers that are already using (or interested in) your product. You can send a bulk email asking your users to contact you if they fit the specific criteria you’re looking for. You can also drop a note into your regular newsletter letting people know you’re recruiting research participants.
Internal research hubs: Creating a research panel for your organization can help reduce costs and speed up the research process by enabling you to talk to people that are keen to help you develop a better product.
Putting a user panel together means you can easily contact people that meet the participant criteria for each study. And with each interaction, you’ll learn more about each person on your panel.
If you’re using a CRM for user research like Consent Kit, you can easily search and filter panelists so you can ensure you’re talking to the right people for each session. You can also see all previous interactions and responses with each panelist, which avoids you repeating questions, and minimizes participant burnout.
- Social media followers - if you have an engaged social following or run a Facebook group, posting that you’re about to run research, or messaging people from this pool can be a simple way to find participants.
Professional networks - ask around your industry contacts and colleagues, community associations, and universities—or do some targeted networking at events. This can help you find people that might be a great fit for your research sessions.
- Your website - pop-ups, banners, and on-page surveys can all be effective methods to help you recruit site visitors that are already interested in what your organization does. Just make sure they’re positioned in a way that doesn’t annoy or distract people as they move around your website.
- Referrals - ask your current and past research participants if they know anyone else that would like to be involved in recruitment in a research study.
Recruit participants for research externally
These channels make the most sense if you need more generalized feedback, if you’re developing a new product, or if you’re running studies involving potential new customers or competitors’ customers.
Manual outreach can be difficult to scale, but if you’re prepared to put the time in, you can find hyper-specific participants that fit your participant criteria to a T.
Social media outreach - Facebook groups, Twitter, and LinkedIn can all be great places to find participants. But this type of outreach can take up a lot of time. Some of the most targeted Facebook groups that would be useful are invite-only or private, and filtering for the right people on LinkedIn can be a painstaking process.
- Sentiment analysis - there are numerous social listening and sentiment analysis tools that can help you monitor social media, online forums, and review sites. As well as learning what people are saying about your product, this method can also identify potential participants who are already engaged with your product at some level.
Paid advertising - if your budget has room, you could consider placing ads on social media or boosting posts for more reach. Make sure your targeting is dialed in so you’re not wasting ad spend on recruiting people that don’t fit your criteria.
- UX research agencies and user testing tools - these options can eat into your research budget, as they typically come with a high price-tag for each participant.
But if you want someone else to handle the logistics of finding the right participants, hiring a specialized agency or choosing a relevant user testing tool can cut down on a lot of stress and time for your researchers. User testing platforms offer pre-screened, diverse participants who can be filtered to find good matches for your studies.
Online communities - tap into the huge numbers of users that spend time in specialized Reddit channels and industry specific Slack groups. If you’re trying to recruit from Reddit, make sure you check out the subreddit rules first in case this violates their terms.
Classified listings - placing a classified ad on Craigslist or in industry-specific publications can help you reach people that might be interested in taking part in your research studies.
Shareable surveys - if you’re using a tool like Consent Kit for recruitment, you can set up shareable surveys which let people learn more about your organization and sign themselves up for future studies.
Field testing - you’ve probably seen people out and about with iPads, stopping people in cafes, bus stops, and on the street to ask them a few questions about a website or product.
Offering people an incentive such as a coffee voucher or cash in exchange for 5 minutes of their time can be an effective way of getting the feedback you need for your studies. While this won’t be useful for many kinds of research, it’s a good tactic if you need fast feedback for more general questions.
5. Set up a screener survey
As we mentioned above, screeners are an excellent method for filtering out the people you do and don’t want in your participant pool for a specific study. A robust screening process helps you ensure a higher quality of data, and avoids wasted time on both the researcher and participant sides if a person isn’t a good match.
When you’re creating screeners, keep in mind that the questions should:
- Be kept brief
- Be relevant to your study
- Use simple language
- Not include leading questions
- Not include questions where it’s easy for a person to guess what you want to hear
- Not give away the purpose of your research
- Include a few open-ended responses
6. Ensure a diverse sample of participants
It’s important you pay close attention to representation in your research recruitment. Improving diversity and inclusion in your participant pool, and ensuring forms and screeners are accessible, will give you the ability to capture a broader range of perspectives and experiences to use in your studies.
Depending on your specific project, this might include considering factors like age, cultural background, language, location or levels of experience with your product.
Download our new whitepaper to learn more: Diversity And Inclusion In Research Recruitment
7. Create a robust communication channel
Make sure you have a two-way communication channel in place (such as a CRM or email) so you can keep in touch with your recruited participants and emphasize the value of their contribution to your organization.
Ensure you also have a way to track, manage, and contact participants so you can quickly find their information and see what needs to happen next.
Managing communication with your users can help you:
- Answer any questions before, during, and after studies
- Confirm the availability of participants
- Ensure informed consent has been obtained
- Schedule convenient research sessions
- Send reminders about research
- Follow up after your study
- Create an ongoing relationship with your ideal participants
- Keep in touch with participants who might not be a good fit now, but could be an ideal participant for another study
Keeping the lines of communication open can also reduce the risk of no-shows from your participants. The average no-show rate for usability studies is about 11%, so any steps you can take to reduce this will save you time having to find extra participants at the last minute.
8. Avoid participant burnout
If you’re recruiting from the same pool of participants each time, you run the risk of these people losing interest or getting burned out from frequent research requests.
Whether you’re using a research panel, contacting customers in your database, or talking to new participants, it’s important to keep them motivated to help, and ensure you’re getting a wide range of viewpoints at the same time.
There are a few ways you can keep your participants interested, including:
- Keeping your research requests short
- Creating a larger pool of possible participants to draw from
- Segmenting participants
- Tracking panelist history to ensure they’re not being contacted too often
- Using a variety of different channels and recruitment methods
- Creating small user groups, iterating on their feedback, and repeating with the next user group
9. Create an incentive plan
Offering an incentive is also a great way to keep your participants motivated and keen to help you out with research sessions. Incentives are typically delivered in the form of rewards such as cash, product samples, swag, or gift cards.
While incentives alone aren’t enough to prevent research fatigue, they show your gratitude as an organization more than a simple “thank you” can.
10. Develop a defined, repeatable process for recruitment
Standardizing and optimizing your recruitment process can enable your organization to gather user insights up to 90% faster.
As you’re moving through the participant recruitment process, keep a detailed record of the steps you’re taking, and the reasons behind each step. This will help you track the effectiveness of your process, and pinpoint elements you can improve on for the next study.
It will also give you a better idea of time frames when you’re carrying out research, to ensure you hit deadlines without rushing your research.
Recruiting participants for your research sessions doesn’t need to be an overwhelming task. With the right steps in place, you can create an efficient, repeatable, and scalable process that lets you easily find and manage a diverse and inclusive user pool for each study.
If you’re looking to carry out UX research studies for your company, Consent Kit can help you formalize your research process, save time, and ensure your studies are accessible, compliant, and efficient. Try it free for 14 days.