How to encourage people to participate in your study

6 min read Max Koh

Hi Optimal Workshop,

I work at a university and my team is currently recruiting students for our UX research. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of money budgeted for remuneration. We have held workshops where we provided pizza and soda, but this doesn’t work when we have individual students come in for usability tests or interviews. Do you have any suggestions for strategies that we could use to recruit students without using traditional monetary remuneration?



Hi Aaron,

Really great question! Recruiting participants can be one of the most frustrating parts of UX research and the user testing process. Not only is it difficult to actually source people in the first place, but it’s hard to find times that suit everyone’s schedules, and even encourage people to take part in the first place! If you have limited resources, it can only make the whole situation much more complicated. Fortunately, there are a few ways that you can get those results rolling in with limited spend.

Whether you’re at a university like yourself, a non-profit organization, student researchers in a lab, or even a company working with a small budget, there are workarounds!

Run a competition or prize draw

While this option still involves spending some money, the amount is much less than rewarding each individual participant. As a bonus, it’s also up to you to pick the prize. Whether it’s related to whatever it is you’re testing, or perhaps the industry you’re in, pick something that will pique the interest of your target demographic. As a university, you could maybe supply a voucher for the local campus bookstore as your prize (we all know how expensive textbooks can be!). Maybe you could even offer some sort of workshop or book — something that might draw in your demographic.

Depending on your budget, you could include more than one voucher, or maybe even work with some departments at the university to see what else they could offer up. Could there be a way for students to receive some extra credit from participating somehow? Can the study fit in with their current course (for example, approaching the class of an anthropology course so they can see what real studies look like in the field).

Each person who participates in your study can receive an entry in the prize draw. To start recruiting even more participants, you could perhaps offer a bonus entry to those who refer another friend to your study.

There are a number of online random generators to help you pick a winner out of your participants — especially useful if you’re running remote user testing. Alternatively, you could ask participants to write down their name and contact information and put it into a hat for you to draw on the day. Make it fun!

While it’s only one prize that’s up for grabs, it will still help to encourage participants a lot more than no reward at all.

Find participants who are engaged, and keep them that way!

Try to track down people who care and may have an opinion about whatever it is you’re researching. For example, if you’re trying to improve the IA of the university’s website, you could check in with people who have talked to your help centre about problems navigating your site. Maybe you could even target university forums or student groups.

Another alternative is to insert an invitation to your study as an intercept snippet on your site. This is a little popup invitation that you can place on any page of your site. It’s super handy for grabbing the attention of potential participants. Installing an intercept snippet code for your study is incredibly easy. Simply head to the ‘Recruit’ tab of any of your Treejack, Questions, OptimalSort or Chalkmark study, and you can find a handy little intercept snippet tool that allows you to customize and copy your snippet code.

Once you have a few participants expressing interest in your study, make sure you keep them engaged. People can be extremely forgetful, so send a couple of reminders that the study is happening soon — whether your study is in person or just online. Keep in mind that any communication surrounding your study is really important. Don’t send too many reminders, and keep language positive so that participants know how they’re helping you. For example, “Help make our website easier for you to use — take our survey now!”.

Make sure your study is inviting

Ever opened up an online survey only to find the questions are each about a paragraph long? Or maybe you agreed to participate in a card sort but got lost in all the jargon?

Keep the design of your study simple. If it’s online, try to take away the hassle and limit the number of steps required for people to participate. There’s nothing worse than volunteering to take part in a study, only to find you have to create various accounts for online tools, register and confirm your email address, then fill out loads of forms. Questions and tasks should be easy to understand and follow, and instructions should be clear and helpful. Don’t make people think too hard or you could see a higher abandonment rate!

Be flexible and ask people to select from some slotted times that you’ve scheduled. It’s much easier to book something this way, rather than asking them when they’re available. Make sure you provide a few slots — the more flexible you are, the more likely you’ll have people participate.

Use a recruitment service

Recruitment services are extremely hassle-free, however they do cost a little bit of money. They’re fantastic if you’re pressed for time, or if you need to research people in other countries.

Our integrated recruitment panel allows you to search for participants that fit a certain criteria, including age, location, gender, occupation, and education level. The best thing about using this recruitment service is that it’s quality guaranteed, and you get the number of responses that you pay for — something that you don’t always get when you source participants yourself!

Reach out to local businesses

You’ll never know an answer unless you ask. So, ask a few local businesses in the area and see if they’d like to provide any sort of incentive that you can give your participants. For example, vouchers or gift cards to a cafe or bar on campus. Anything that is free to you and beneficial to both participants and the nearby business could do the trick!

Hang around your campus cafe

If your campus has a cafe or popular coffee cart, go hang out there and talk to people. These spots are a great source to find participants, and you’ll see all types of students and staff members there. Simply approach people in the queue and offer to buy them a coffee in exchange for 15 minutes of their time. You’d be surprised at the number of strangers who will say yes just to score a free cup of joe.

With remote user testing tools, you can quickly set up your study on your or your participant’s laptop right in the cafe. Even better, you can give your newly recruited participant a QR code to complete the study on their smartphone and it’ll be done in minutes!

As you can see, recruiting participants doesn’t have to be costly. There’s always a way to find people to take part in your study, but the first step is to just ask.

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