What is participant recruitment and how to overcome the challenges?

By UserTesting | May 5, 2023
Research participants in a crowd

Ask the nearest researcher about their most persistent pain points in usability testing, and we can almost guarantee that recruiting participants is up there near the top.

In one of our State of UX in the Enterprise surveys, we asked researchers which phase of their UX team’s process is the most challenging. Coming in at number one with 47% of the votes was recruiting participants.

To understand this problem a little better, let's look at some of the most common recruitment problems as well as some proven strategies in doing recruitment right.

What is participant recruitment?

Just to get everyone on the same page: Participant recruitment is the act of defining, finding and inviting representatives of your target audience into your user research or usability study. 

Why is participant recruitment so important to get right?

In research, you get out what you put in and incorrect input results in a faulty output.

That means that the insights from and results from a poorly-recruited study could be coming from people your product was never even designed for.

For example, if your product is aimed at selling houses, you don’t want input from people who are incapable of ever buying a house. This can result in costly redesigns that would have been faster, easier and cheaper had more accurate insights been captured and used early on in the process.

Why is participant recruitment so difficult?

There are multiple reasons that participant recruitment can be tough.

If your product or service is niche, the general population may not be able to provide many of your target users. Or maybe your stakeholders simply don’t see the ROI of investing time, effort and money into recruiting. Perhaps you’re a team of one and don’t have the bandwidth or you’re working in agile sprints without the time to properly source the right people.

Recruiting can be tricky but it's not impossible. You can do this and we’re here to help.

Five pro tips to remember when recruiting participants

There’s plenty to take into consideration when recruiting for user research so we thought we’d share these five tips to bear in mind during the process.

1) Over recruit

Let it be known that if you need 10 qualitative think-out-louds and recruit 10 people in advance that at least one of them will have something come up that prevents them from attending. Your tidy plan to get 10 results within the time constraints of your sprint is suddenly doomed. That’s why we recommend to always have a few more in waiting should the need arise.

2) Account for recruiting time in your planning

At some point in your career, you bore witness to a research planning session in which recruiting was vastly underrated in terms of how long it would take. Be sure to take into consideration typical recruitment concerns when planning your research and how that will affect the amount of time it takes to find and invite participants into your study.

We recommend starting by asking questions such as: Is our target audience rare? Do we have some on file? Are we trying to get live users from our site? Is this an entirely new segment? Should we this in-house or use a panel vendor?

3) Always use a screener

Use screeners. Trust us on this one. Even if you’re doing live intercepts from a page on your website that is literally a fan club, use a screener. It will help safeguard your data and ensure that all the work you or the panel provider has done isn’t wasted by having to go back and vet participants, re-recruit, or parse through your data.

4) Is there technical knowledge that’s needed?

Sometimes it’s taken for granted that participants would need to have some kind of technical knowledge or expertise. If you’re testing a remote prototype, for example, you may want to consider explaining what all they would need in order to access and interact with it. If there’s a piece of hardware or physical equipment this doubly applies.

Check your bias on the kinds of technical expertise you’re assuming someone has or doesn’t have. If technical experience is important, add it to the screener and be sure to include directions if needed.

5) Take compensation into account

You have to show respect for people’s time. Typically this means the longer the study, the more in-depth it will be. The more technical the task, the greater compensation will likely need to be. If you’re not getting the number of completes you need in the expected time you’ve allotted, take a fresh look at what you’re asking and what you’re offering in return.

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About the author(s)

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