How to find quality participants for UX research

8 min read David Renwick

Summary: Learn how to find the right (quality) participants for your next qualitative research project.

If there’s one universal truth in user research, it’s that at some point you’re going to need to find people to actually take part in your studies.

While finding the right participants for research can be a bottleneck on some projects, especially those that require a particularly niche user group, the process of participant recruitment has unfairly taken on a reputation as being unachievable and hard. In reality, it’s not that difficult. With the right approach, you can quite easily source exactly the right participants for your next research project.

We’ll share some of our tips for doing so in this article, and also share some examples of how we’ve found participants for our own projects in the past. Note that this article will focus on some of the best ways to source participants for qualitative research.

Planting the participant recruitment seed

If you’re still quite new to the concept of going out and talking to your organization’s customers, you’re likely looking at the length of this article and thinking that it all seems rather complicated. You’re also probably thinking that you’ll have to do this every time you want to carry out some sort of research. This isn’t the case. Participant recruitment can be compared to planting a seed. While you may have to start small, eventually you’ll end up with a veritable fruit tree; a large number of participants you can pick and choose from whenever you need to run a series of user interviews or usability tests. It’s certainly a numbers game – and one that gets much easier over time.

Define your user group

Before you ever reach out to someone about participating in your research, it’s important to define your user group. If you want your research to be effective (in that you’ll gather meaningful results and insights), then you need to recruit people who are representative of either your users or potential users. Defining the characteristics of these people is known as defining your user group, and the difficulty of this process depends largely on the people you need.

Let’s say for example that your organization is creating a new piece of software for airline staff. These people will use this software to manage the customer check-in process, tracking baggage and handling online bookings. Now, the prospective users of this piece of software are quite specific (ground crew airline workers), but this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to test exclusively with people who work in this profession. Various aspects of the software (like the general user interface) can be tested with anyone who uses a computer. This means that while you will probably want to test your software with airline workers, you may also run several other tests with a general selection of people.

How many participants do you need for qualitative user research?

How many participants to include in a qualitative research study is one of the most heavily discussed topics in user research circles. In most cases, you can get away with 5 people – that’s the short answer. With 5 people, you’ll uncover most of the main issues with the thing you’re testing.

So why is this number so low? It essentially comes down to cost. Your expenses go up with each additional participant, but at the same time, the number of unique findings starts to taper off. Essentially, once you start going above 5 people, the return on investment drops off sharply. If your research isn’t constrained by a tight budget, you’re better off using this to run more studies instead of adding participants. It’s also worth mentioning the time factor. Analyzing the data from 5 interviews is manageable, but doing so for 20 would be a significant time commitment.

Quantitative research is obviously quite different. With studies like card sorts and tree tests, you need higher participant numbers to get statistically meaningful results.

Now that we’ve covered how to define a user group and how many participants you usually need for qualitative research, it’s time to move onto the recruitment stage. Don’t worry – it’s actually one of the easiest parts of running a user research project.

Look within your organization

One of the best places to find willing research participants is by looking within your own organization. Obviously, this won’t be a good option in every case (like you when need people from a particular location or with a certain profession), but it’s a good place to start. It’s usually a good idea to use the people within your organization if you want to carry out more general UI testing or discovery research.

But there’s also another way in which your own organization can prove useful. Your sales and customer support teams have a direct line to the people you’re likely trying to research, and what’s more, these people will likely have a lot to say about your product. Focus on building strong relationships with your internal teams if you’d like them to continuously send over potential research participants.

Ask over social media

Your organization’s social media channels – Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and even Reddit – can be a great source of participants, provided they have decent followings. The usual approach here is to create a post announcing a call for participants, but you may also want to consider running a paid advertisement on some of your social channels in order to reach more people, or to reach a very specific audience.

A post on Reddit looking for researching participants.
A content strategist looks for research participants on Reddit.

Use a participant recruitment service

Dedicated participant recruitment services or research panels are a great option if you’re short on time. These are databases of participants that you can recruit from, saving you having to go out and recruit yourself. With the number of participants required for qualitative research being that much lower, however, it’s probably a good idea to see if you can find them yourself before turning to a recruitment service or panel. Also note that it can be tricky to find participants in particularly niche fields, or participants with a specific set of characteristics.

Place a live intercept on your website or in your app

Want a relatively hands-off way of recruiting participants? Consider setting up a live intercept on your organization’s website. The basic principle is that by using a tool like Intercom, you set a pop-up to appear on a page on your website with a message asking visitors if they’d like to participate in a study. While some tools allow you to capture an email address at that point and start a conversation with the potential participant, it’s best-practice to link them to a dedicated landing page where you can explain in more detail about the research process and the types of people you’re looking for.

A Nielsen Norman Group survey pop-up.
A Nielsen Norman Group survey pop-up.

Next steps: Managing your participants

If you’re starting to get some responses to your emails, intercepts and ads, it’s time to turn your attention to the logistical side of participant recruitment: management.

The best ways to manage participants

Understandably, participant management can get quite involved when you’re coordinating multiple people and studies. The key is to carefully track everything using a piece of software like Microsoft Office Excel, Airtable or Google Sheets.

Create a table with rows for each participant, and columns for the following:

  • Their contact details (email and phone number)
  • Whether or not they’ve been contacted
  • Interview/usability test time
  • Whether they’ve been paid their incentive
  • Any consent forms that may be required

Keeping all of these details in one place can make the logistics of participant recruitment much easier.

Consider how you’ll repay participants (incentives)

In some areas, it can be tricky to find people willing to help you with your research for free. Sure, internal staff may feel a sense of obligation to lend you their time, but it’s a different story when you’re recruiting from outside your organization, especially if they’re customers. This is where incentives come into play.

Commonly, an incentive takes the form of a small monetary reward. When we ran some usability testing sessions earlier this year, we rewarded participants with vouchers to a nearby supermarket (everyone needs groceries!). Of course, you can also just pay them cash.

If you’re struggling to think of an appropriate amount, it can help to consider the following:

  • Their time – How long do you have them for? A short user interview will require different compensation than a long usability test.
  • What’s their profession? – Are you trying to recruit university students? Part-time retail workers? Specialist doctors? Their profession and skill level will have a bearing on compensation. For example, you may find that a voucher for $50 isn’t enough to incentivize a doctor.

Nielsen Norman Group found that the average incentive companies paid to external users was $64 for every hour of testing time. But when looking at the profile of these users, that amount increased by nearly four times. High-level professionals received around $118. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that this study was conducted in 2003, meaning you’ll want to increase these amounts.

Wrap up

Participant recruitment isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most important parts of the user research process. By sourcing quality participants, keeping track of them throughout the process and providing good incentives, you’ll likely find the process much easier to manage.

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David Renwick

David is Optimal Workshop's web writer. You can usually find him alongside Bowie, the office dog. Connect with him on LinkedIn.