How to choose the right participants for your UX research

Posted on May 13, 2016
3 min read


One of the most important factors that contribute to a successful user research study lies in choosing the right participants (and the right number of them).  

How many participants do you need?

There’s some debate out there over how many participants you should include in a user test, and the right answer depends on what you’re trying to learn.

Researching usability problems

You don’t need a large sample size for this type of study. Research shows that 5 test participants will uncover 85% of a product’s usability issues. Run a study with 5-7 users, make improvements to your product, test again, and so on. This is more efficient and cost-effective than running one large study.

Uncovering trends and opinions

If you’re trying to discover trends amongst users, then you’ll need a larger sample of participants. This will help you establish quantitative findings so you can present a more convincing case to your stakeholders. If you’ve segmented your customers by various characteristics, like company size, income, or geographical location, you can start by recruiting participants based on those qualifications. Once you’ve established your segments, run your study with at least 5-7 participants for each segment.

How closely should your study participants match your buyer personas?

When you’re narrowing down your participants there are typically two schools of thought: cast a wide net and test with a large, general demographic, or get super specific with your requirements and seek out a very specific user. Naturally, there are situations when one will be more appropriate to your research needs than the other.

General demographic

The general consensus amongst many UX practitioners is to avoid getting too granular when choosing participants. The majority of products should be so clear and easy to use, that just about anyone could use them. With a general demographic, that’s exactly the audience you’ll capture. Plus, you’ll find participants quickly (sometimes within minutes when using the UserTesting platform). If you’d like to use a general demographic, make sure your study fits these characteristics:

  • The product you’re testing is meant for a wide variety of customers
  • Anyone can use it with minimal instruction or prior knowledge
  • The product can be tested with each participant in 15 minutes or less

Niche products and customer opinions

The challenge with a wide demographic, however, is that those participants might not match your ideal customer. So while you’ll still get valuable feedback, you might not be hearing from your target audience. Here are a few situations when a narrower demographic may be best:

  • You have a niche product or audience
  • Your product or what you’d like to study is complicated and will require a certain level of prior knowledge or expertise
  • You’re comparing your product with direct competitors

How to recruit the right participants with UserTesting

With the UserTesting platform, you can recruit from our panel of over one million users. You can find your target audience with just a few clicks. The broader your demographics are, the more quickly your test sessions will fill, and the sooner you’ll get your test videos back. If you need to test with a very narrow target market, it may take a few days to get your results.

Using basic demographics

UserTesting clients on both the Basic and Pro plans can set requirements for age, income, gender, country, web expertise, and operating system at test creation. Pro clients can also select the browser, social networks, and other requirements of their own choosing. You can also include multiple groups of users within a single study. This is good for making sure you’re getting feedback from different audience segments.

Using screener questions

Screener questions are multiple choice questions that you pose to potential participants to exclude or include them based on your requirements. For example, if you need participants that have a certain level of familiarity with your product, a screener question can determine if they’re appropriate for your study. Pro clients have the option to set up screener questions, which are multiple choice questions that will allow users to participate in the test only if they meet specified criteria.

  • Avoid leading questions and yes or no questions.
  • Make sure that your answer options are clear and distinct.
  • Always include a “None,” “I don’t know,” or “Other” option.
  • Use as many screener questions as you need

Recruiting your own customers with a private panel

With the UserTesting platform, you can even test with your existing customers or audience. Our unmoderated, private panel allows you to submit a study to a private panel of your choosing for detailed, highly-targeted feedback and insights.  

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