Tips for recruiting quality research participants

6 min read Jess Jenkins

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. Be it a large number of participants for quantitative research or a select number for in-depth, in-person user interviews. Finding the right people (and number) of people can be a hurdle.

With the right strategy, you can source exactly the right participants for your next research project.

 We share a practical step-by-step guide on how to find participants for user experience research.

The difficulties/challenges of user research recruiting

It has to be acknowledged that there are challenges when recruiting research participants. You may recognize some of these:

  • There are so many channels and methods you can use to find participants, different channels will work better for different projects.
  • Repeatedly using the same channels and methods will result in diminishing returns (i.e. burning out participants).
  • It’s a lengthy and complex process, and some projects don’t have the luxury of time.
  • Offering the right incentives and distributing them is time-consuming.
  • It’s hard to manage participants during long-term or recurring studies, such as customer research projects.

We’ll simplify the process, talk about who the right participants are, and unpack some of the best ways to find them. Removing these blocks can be the easiest way to move forward.

Who are the right participants for different types of research?

1. The first step to a successful participant recruitment strategy is clarifying the goals of your user research and which methods you intend to use. Ask yourself:

  • What is the purpose of our research? 
  • How do we plan to understand that?

2. Define who your ideal research participant is. Who is going to have the answers to your questions?

3. Work out your research recruitment strategy. That starts by understanding the differences between recruiting for qualitative and quantitative research.

Recruiting for qualitative vs. quantitative research

Quantitative research recruiting is a numbers game. For your data analysis to be meaningful and statistically significant, you need a lot of data. This means you need to do a lot of research with a lot of people. When recruiting for quantitative research, you first have to define the population (the entire group you want to study). From there, you choose a sampling method that allows you to create a sample—a randomly selected subset of the population who will participate in your study.

Qualitative recruiting involves far fewer participants, but you do need to find a selection of ‘perfect’ participants. Those that fit neatly into your specific demographic, geographic, psychographic, and behavioral criteria relevant to your study. Recruiting quality participants for qualitative studies involves non-random sampling, screening, and plenty of communication.

How many participants do you need?

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. Depending on your research project there could be as many as 50 participants, but with each additional person, there is an additional cost (money and time).

Quantitative research is obviously quite different. With studies like card sorts and tree tests, you need higher participant numbers to get statistically meaningful results. Anywhere from 20 – 500 participants, again coming back to the purpose of your test and your research budget. These are usually easier and quicker to implement therefore the additional cost is lower.

User research recruitment – step by step

Let’s get into your research recruitment strategy to find the best participants for your research project. There are 5 clear steps to get you through to the research stage:

1. Identify your ideal participants

Who are they? What do they do? How old are they? Do they already use your product? Where do they live? These are all great questions to get you thinking about who exactly you need to answer your research questions. The demographic and geographic detail of your participants are important to the quality of your research results.

2. Screen participants

Screening participants will weed out those that may not be suitable for your specific project. This can be as simple as asking if the participants have used a product similar to yours. Or coming back to your key identified demographic requirements and removing anyone that doesn’t fit these criteria.

3. Find prospective participants

This is important and can be time-consuming. For qualitative research projects, you can look within your organization or ask over social media for willing participants. Or if you’re short on time look at a participant recruitment service, which takes your requirements and has a catalog of available persons to call on. There’s a cost involved, but the time saving can negate this. For qualitative surveys, a great option can be a live intercept on your website or app that interrupts users and asks them to complete a short questionnaire.

4. Research incentives

In some cases you will need to provide incentives. This could be offering a prize or discount for those who complete online qualitative surveys. Or a fixed sum for those that take part in longer format quantitative studies.

5. Scheduling with participants

Once you have waded through the emails, options, and communication from your inquiries make a list of appropriate participants. Schedule time to do the research, either in person or remotely. Be clear about expectations and how long it will take. And what the incentive to take part is.

Tips to avoid participant burnout

You’ve got your participants sorted and have a great pool of people to call on. If you keep hitting the same group of people time and time again, you will experience the law of diminishing returns. Constantly returning to the same pool of participants will eventually lead to fatigue. And this will impact the quality of your research because it’s based on interviewing the same people with the same views.

There are 2 ways to avoid this problem:

  1. Use a huge database of potential participant targets.
  2. Use a mixture of different recruitment strategies and channels.

Of course, it might be unavoidable to hit the same audience repeatedly when you’re testing your product development among your customer base.

Wrap up

Understanding your UX research recruitment strategy is crucial to recruiting quality participants. A clear idea of your purpose, who your ideal participants are, and how to find them takes time and experience. 

And to make life easier you can always leave your participant recruitment with us. With a huge catalog of quality participants all at your fingertips on our app, we can recruit the right people quickly.

Check out more here.