The Basics of Recruiting Participants for User Research

The Basics of Recruiting Participants for User Research

by Ditte Hvas Mortensen | | 15 min read

Recruiting the right participants is crucial if your user research is to get your design anywhere. Your research participants must be able to represent your target group or end users; otherwise, your results will not translate into something you can use. The level of difficulty you will face when recruiting participants depends on your criteria. If your criteria are general, such as age group and location, recruiting participants is an easy matter. If your criteria are more specific, things can get more involved and time-consuming. Here, we will go through the considerations you should make when deciding what type of research participants you want and give you pointers for how you can go about recruiting the participants you need so as to make your project matter far, far more to the real users later.

Recruiting a Sample of Users

If you want to do user research that is effective, you’ll need to recruit participants who represent your (potential) users. These participants should possess characteristics found in your eventual customers – the people in your target group. Many products and services have a variety of different user types or groups, so you need to recruit a range of research participants so as to tap into these variations. Ideally, time and budget permitting, when dealing with a product with multiple user groups, you should do research with each group separately.

Companies sometimes outsource the job of recruiting research participants to a specialist firm or group. Such specialist firms will also need to take demographics and other qualities and characteristics into consideration when selecting potential participants on behalf of their clients. This requires knowledge of the target users and the context under investigation, so the recruitment team will need to gather information before recruitment begins.

Whom Should You Recruit?

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You should recruit participants who represent your target group/end users. They can have characteristics that are as broad or as narrow as the nature of your project; one thing you should never overlook, though, is accessibility – ensure you consider how users with disabilities would encounter your design.

On occasion, usability tests and other types of user research are carried out with employees from related businesses, but you should be careful about using your colleagues, because of the potential for bias. If the employees feel they must say positive things because they know you or if they know too much about the product, the research sessions will probably fail to yield the desired results. Another risk is déformation professionnelle – a phenomenon that arises when so many testers from one profession come into contact with an item they must judge. While this may not have to matter if you actually do manage to latch your project with the perfect niche—for example, you get a bunch of employees from a games manufacturer to test your game—the risk is great that if too many are from one industry and your design isn’t fully aligned with them as users, they’ll tend to analyze the design based on their industry know-how. That will cause a slanted view of your work’s functionality and its ability to please.

In some projects, recruitment is a straightforward process, as there will be a ready supply of people willing and able to take part. However, when a product has a very specific target group, recruitment must be targeted at identifying the best possible candidates from the available pool. For example, when testing a new mobile app for checking which supermarket offers the cheapest prices on specific products, recruitment should be relatively straightforward, as the target users would be the general public – although you might have a few additional requirements such as a specific age group or income bracket. Recruiters could then simply ask people outside supermarkets if they would like to participate in the study.

In contrast, if you are developing a new and complex system for a specific group of workers in a company, you would need either to take a sample of these eventual users or to identify the skills and responsibilities necessary for this role and try to find an equivalent group from another source. In that case, recruitment can take a while because the pool of potential participants is smaller.

Recruitment Criteria

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Specific criteria for your research participants, e.g. if they should use certain social media, depend on your project and the type of research you are doing.

Before you recruit participants, you must consider what criteria you need to apply when recruiting so that your participants can provide relevant insights for your project. In some cases, your criteria may be very general, such as age, location, and experience with a certain type of widely used product (e.g., laptop computers). In other cases, you need people who can provide more specific insights into the project you are working on – e.g., someone who has experience using online click-and-collect services or someone who has been through a specific type of treatment at a hospital. Deciding on the right number and type of criteria for research participants is a balancing act. You don’t want so few criteria that your participants don’t represent your end users. For instance, if you have a design for an app that ‘almost anyone can use’ (such as a low-intensity physical activity monitor), that might be all well and good in the long run, but you’ll need to tighten your scope so as to identify likely customers embodied in your research participants. On the other hand, you don’t want to add criteria that might make it difficult to recruit participants, at least not unless you really have to. The more specific the criteria you have, the more effort you must put into recruiting, so you should carefully consider the necessity of each criterion. Often, you just need to recruit participants who represent your primary target group and you don’t have to cover every corner case you can think of. Your actual usership is likely to end up involving more than just a few unexpected types of users, anyway.

If you have a broad target group, you can use design consultancy IDEO’s method of recruiting both ‘Extremes’ and ‘Mainstreams’. By including extreme users, you can be more confident that your research covers the entire spectrum of your target group. You can, for example, include participants who have very little computer experience in your test of a new software tool, because if they can figure out how to use your software, most other users probably will be able to, too. If you use the extremes and mainstreams method, just remember to include the mainstream users as well – after all, they are the ones who represent the majority of your target group.

In most projects, at the minimum you need to consider the age group of your participants, their geographical location, and if there is any specific type of experience they should or should not have. For example, if you want to do a usability of an Android app, you probably need participants who have experience using Android phones, because your end users will also own Android phones and thus have experience with that operating system.

Once you have decided on your criteria, you need to write a screener—a script for screening participants—that you or someone else can use for recruiting by asking questions that will determine whether a potential participant fits into your criteria.

You can download an example of a test screener from

How to Recruit

There are different ways to go about recruiting participants. You can choose to use a recruitment agency that recruits participants for you based on the criteria you set up. Using a recruitment agency is usually an efficient way to recruit participants, but it is also costly. If you don’t have the funds to use a recruitment agency, you must recruit participants yourself. The best way to recruit participants depends on your project. Using your network, or posting on social media can be efficient if your participants are people not too far from your own social circle. How closely related your participants can be to you again depends on your project, but you have less risk of bias if your participants don’t know you personally. If you need to recruit user groups that are hard to reach, you can use interest groups or internet forums where you think people from your target group might be active. Sometimes, recruiting this way requires you to get permission from or go through a moderator who will decide if your request is appropriate for the users in question.

You can make recruiting easier by making sure that you make the time and location of your sessions as convenient as possible for your potential participants and by offering some form of reward or incentive. It’s always a good idea to recruit a few more participants than you actually need; that way, you are sure to have the participants you need in case of no-shows or cancelations. Remember, these participants, just like the users they are standing in for, live in a real world of broken-down cars, sickness, forgetfulness, and all the other ‘what ifs’ that make us human.

The Costs of Recruitment

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Research participants often receive some form of compensation for their efforts, either money or a gift.

The chosen research participants will usually receive some form of 'reward' or financial compensation for their involvement in the research sessions. Compensation will vary according to the amount of time the research takes and, sometimes, the complexity of the tasks. If the participants are recruited from a specific group of skilled professionals, the rewards may be higher in order to compensate them appropriately for their time. Rewards can include payment (you can Google what is appropriate), gifts (e.g., vouchers and products), and expenses (e.g., travel, food, and hotel costs). Sometimes, you might find it easier (and overall cheaper) to entice participation by offering a chance to win a prize, rather than offering direct compensation (e.g., “Take part in our study for a chance to win a 50-inch TV.”). How much you should pay depends on your geographic region. Usually, you’ll find it easy to find out how much is appropriate in your area through a simple Google search. If you do offer compensation, you should keep documentation for your accounting and/or personnel department to show the costs of the process.

If the company or business uses a recruitment firm, the cost of compensating test users will be eclipsed by their costs. Recruitment groups or individual recruitment agents are typically paid a fee for every research participant who fulfills all of your criteria (i.e., fits the specified demographic and successfully completes the research session).

The recruitment process should be a relatively painless procedure, but it is important to provide the recruiter(s) with sufficient information to choose the right people for your project. On a final note, remember that your recruited testers will indeed be representing your users, and hopefully in ways that reflect how the real users will engage with your design. Here’s a little piece of inspiration to help keep things in perspective:

“When you design a solution, what pops into your head? Here is my answer: that we considered and explored. That we peered ahead into the stress test of the real world, when some harried young woman minding her own business encounters our work. She’s not thinking of us, she’s thinking of what she has to do that night an e-mail to write to her professor, a midterm to cram for, laundry to do in preparation for that party on Saturday. And we were prepared for her. We left no detail unexamined.”Julie Zhuo, Former-Product Design VP at Facebook

The Take Away

Recruiting the right participants is crucial for getting valuable results from your user research. Your participants have to be able to represent your end users. That means that you must consider what criteria you have for your research participants before you can start recruiting. When your criteria are general—such as age and location—recruiting participants is relatively easy, but when you have more specific requirements concerning who you need to participate in your study, it can be more difficult and time-consuming. By involving extreme and mainstream users in the research stage, however, you can improve your chances for latching with your true target users later, as the former two will consist of a blanket of experience (and lack thereof!) that will show you where your design truly stands. As ever, keep accessibility issues and users with disabilities in mind.

References & Where to Learn More

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Dave. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Course: Conducting Usability Testing:

Recruiting Usability Test Participants (

Ethnio: A site for recruiting users

How to find great participants for your user study

You can read about IDEO’s Extremes and Mainstreams method here:

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