Last updated: 

August 17, 2021

Recruiting Participants for Research - A Comprehensive Guide

Monica Fidele

Monica Fidele

There is no doubt that user research interviews play an important role in the outcome of any product. We have the first-hand experience of failing and then eventually succeeding at building the right product — with the help of insights learned from research interviews.

But conducting user interviews wasn’t really as straightforward as we expected. If it’s about finding any users you could and talking to them for 30 mins over a Zoom call, sure, it’d be far easier. But you wouldn’t have the product that your target users would ‘love’ to use.

Make no mistake. Users will show interest but turning that ‘interest’ into actual ‘usage of your product’ is a significant undertaking. Closing the gap b/w interest and usage highly depends on what you learn during the research interviews. And, what you learn from research interviews depends on the users you recruit.

In other words, it all starts here. No matter what you’re trying to build — a feature or an entirely new product, it all begins with recruiting and interviewing the right users.

If you find it difficult to recruit the right participants for research, then you aren’t alone. 43% of user experience researchers believe recruiting participants is the most challenging phase of their research process.

By the time you finish reading this piece (and it’s a long one), you’ll feel more confident and probably find it easier to recruit users. Let’s get started.

Before You Recruit Users

As we mentioned before, you can’t pick any random users to conduct research interviews. Your participants should represent your future customers and it’s important to keep a ‘clean’ lab and use screening surveys to filter out the rest from the ideal participants.

We’ve talked about it in detail here. Give it a quick read before you go ahead and start scheduling user interviews.

And, our goal here is to provide multiple ways to help you recruit participants for qualitative, one-on-one user interviews — for the purpose of generative and evaluative user research. But you’ll still see some methods that could help you to acquire users for quantitative interviews as well.

How to Recruit Participants for Research

We’re going to list several methods you could use to recruit participants for your research interviews. But not all of them can work for your specific research needs — so focus on the channels that suit your project.  

1. Leverage Your Network

While it sounds familiar, it’s often overlooked. Start by tapping into your network first. Your chances of scoring interviews are higher and you’ll have a great kick-off to your research project.

- Customers

If you already have a product out in the market — with customers, then ideally, reaching out to them would be the best way to recruit participants. As they are your customers, they’re likely to be interested in the upcoming feature/product and would be willing to talk to you as well.

- Users

Do you have a large user base who didn’t convert into customers yet? Reach out to the active users and try scheduling research interviews with them.

It’s not necessary to send out a dedicated email. For instance, just add a call-out section in your monthly email newsletter inviting users to take part in your research and contribute to the product roadmap.

- Personal Contacts

You can rely on your personal contacts depending on what you’re looking to build. If your target users require specialized knowledge or skills, it wouldn’t be useful to reach out to the people you know.

- Internal Contacts

You can also try to recruit participants via your co-workers and other influential people associated with your company (funding, advisory, etc.). Get their help to reach more people and widen your participants pool.

We pretty much relied on everything mentioned above while conducting user research interviews for our product — Grain.

Caveat:

While it’s easier to leverage your personal network, it may not help you get the ideal participants and more importantly, unbiased opinions — which is what you need to make the project successful. You could also be biased while selecting the users to interview (selection bias), so pay close attention to how you select users.

To summarize, keep an eye out for bias and use screening surveys to ensure you’re only talking to the right users from your network.  

2. Capitalize on Social Platforms

Using relevant groups and communities on social media platforms to recruit users isn’t a new concept. Many have been doing so for quite a while now, which unfortunately, makes the channel saturated with such requests.

But you can stand out and recruit users — especially for qualitative interviews via social platforms.

- Reddit

Reddit has subreddits for almost everything. You can look for specific subreddits that match your target users’ interests, join them, and based on the rules, share a text post explaining what you’re looking for and why the subreddit should care.

There are also subreddits dedicated to surveys like r/takemysurvey, r/samplesize, etc. where you’ll be allowed to share the screening survey link directly.

Subreddits for Product Managers
Example: List of subreddits where ‘product managers’ are likely to be active — consuming relevant content.

While Reddit isn’t an ideal place to share links, with a genuine message, you can generate enough traction to your post and recruit participants. For instance, rather than making your post about surveys or user interviews, briefly talk about what you’re building, why it matters (to target users), and where you’re stuck and looking to get help. We’ve also seen feedback-type posts performing well.

- Slack Channels

Slack is yet another platform where you can discover and join relevant closed communities. The best part is, Slack groups tend to have dedicated channels (examples: #recruitment, #ask-for-help, #feedback-requests, etc.) where you can post your request to recruit users.

But it’s easy to get lost in the clutter. So, ensure your message is relatable to the users. We can’t emphasize it enough. Your message should speak to your users in a way they like, addressing the pain points they experience often and looking to solve.

UX user recruitment message
Source: A request from Dareen Christabel on Mixed Methods slack group.
"I think for me, the biggest goal I have when writing recruitment messages is to ignite the passion and excitement of the people that read the message. The more they feel that they relate to and identify with this description of the person a research recruiter is looking for, they're more likely to sign up for this activity." — Dareen Christabel, UX Researcher.

Your goal isn’t to post in as many channels as possible. It’s to post in a selected few but ensure it gets your message across to the right people.

You can use a simple Google search (‘target users + slack channels’) to find the relevant Slack communities or use Slofile.

Pro-tip: Ensure you’re tracking the effectiveness of the Slack channels to focus on the best ones.

- Facebook Groups

You can easily discover a handful of relevant groups on Facebook with a simple search. Again, the goal shouldn’t be to share your message across as many groups as possible, it’s to get the best results from a selected few.  

Make your pick and ensure your post is tailored to the users in the group.

- LinkedIn

If you’re looking to talk to professionals then LinkedIn can be a great place to source participants. While it’s a manual process, you can specifically identify people based on their job title, past company, industry, location, and more.

With a direct message that focuses on users, you can generate enough interest to nudge users to take your screening survey.

Let’s say you’re building a product that helps product managers to capture and leverage the voice of the customers to influence the roadmap, then talk to PMs of the fast-growing startups that have been actively shipping product features. Your message should address why you’re reaching out, what you can do in return, and how it benefits them immediately.

- Twitter

Twitter is an excellent platform to find people looking to solve the problem that you are after. It’s even more useful when you are in a later stage of your research (evaluative testing), especially when you have an initial prototype to test.  

You can respond to relevant threads and see if they’re interested in trying out your product and eventually, turn the conversation into a user interview.

- Paid Ads

If your outreach on LinkedIn/Facebook/Reddit isn’t working in your favor, then switch gears and experiment with targeted ads. Facebook and LinkedIn enable you to target users based on the groups they are part of, job title, interests, etc. So, you have a good chance of showing your message to the right audience.

If you’re taking this route, the trickiest part is to make people pay attention to your ad and take the necessary action. So, focus on the creative and incentives.

3. Use Recruitment Tools

If you have a budget, you can use a market research tool to source the necessary candidates for conducting your research interviews. Note that market recruitment tools aren’t necessarily used for quant-based research. You can recruit a smaller number of people matching your target person as well.

- UserInterviews.com

We’ve personally used userinterviews.com and ran a handful of user interviews as well. It’s easy to get started and you can use filters to set up interviews with the right people.

- Respondent.io

Respondent.io is another recruitment tool used by several researchers and you can explore the user panel to see if they have the audience that you find relevant and useful to the project.

When it comes to selecting the market research tool, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Try out a few tools and settle on the one that offers a wider pool of your target audience.

Caveat:

Typically, market recruitment tools work best if you have a broader target market. The more specific you get, the harder it will be to find and set up an interview with the right users. For instance, ‘software developers in the U.S’ is broad enough to get you a good number of interviews; not ‘financial advisors with experience in the investment banking industry.

4. Partner with Recruitment Agency

If you’re looking for participants with specialized knowledge and skills, recruitment agencies are the best way to go. You can also prepare your own screening questionnaire and ask the agencies to use the same to find the ideal participants for setting up interviews.

Here’s a list of research partners that are focused on b2b audiences.

Note that we aren’t recommending any of them for your project; just providing a quick list to kick start your agency hunting process. Always do your research and talk to previous customers before finalizing the partner.

  • Fieldwork
  • EMI Research Solutions
  • ImpactSense
  • IRBureau
  • Cascade Insights

You can use market research directories like bluebook.org, greenbook.org, etc. to find the right research partners based on your project scope and requirements.

5. Get Creative

You aren’t limited to traditional channels when it comes to recruiting users. Here are a few creative ways to source relevant participants.

- Trade Interviews

User researchers understand how hard it is to find suitable participants for the research. So, they’re likely to help each other out — if the scope permits.

If you come across a screening survey where you’re an ideal match, take the survey as a user. If other researchers fall within your target, they’ll be happy to return the favor.

#recruitment channel in ‘Mixed Methods’ Slack community is a perfect example here.

While it doesn’t work in many cases, it can help when your target users are broad. For instance, if you are looking for users who are using a project management system like Trello or Asana, you can easily find them.

- Create a Job For your Users

Yes, you read it right. You can create a job posting for your ideal user and try to recruit them via job portals.

Let’s look at a quick example. Fi, a recently launched neo-bank or online banking platform aims to help users get more control over their spending habits.

They wanted to test the product with the selected set of target users and so, they came up with a job role — “Chief Broke Officer (CBO)”.

From the posting, “This role [CBO] is for working professionals who have a broken relationship with money. So if you make money and generally pay taxes on time, but don’t understand your money, where it went, or what happened to it - you should apply!”

They ran ads and generated enough interest to get thousands of users applying to become part of the test cohort. Close to 800 people applied via LinkedIn alone.

They literally recruited the users.

How to Maximize Participation Rate?

Before you go ahead and experiment with different methods to get users to take your screening surveys and schedule interviews, there are some best practices to follow to maximize the participation rate.

- Offer Incentives

Ensure you have the incentive that’s best for the target audience. From a $10 Starbucks gift card to exclusive access to product/content, understand what your target users value and offer an incentive accordingly.

- Show the Experience

Sometimes users wouldn’t schedule an interview as they don’t know how the experience will be. But if you give them a peek into what’ll happen during the interview and how the previous users felt after taking part in it, you’ll reduce the friction.

We have seen researchers sharing a Grain clip along with the ‘ask’ to present the best moments from previous user interviews.

Here’s a quick example for reference:

- Focus on the Users

The entire message should be about the target users. While you are the one asking for a favor, you need to emphasize why they’ll find it worthwhile.

- Show that You Care

Follow-up with the users who signed up for an interview to let them know that you’re excited to chat and discuss the agenda. You could also send some useful & relevant resources or simply offer to help them in any way you can.

The idea is to get in touch as soon as possible and show that you’re looking forward to the interview.

- Keep it Short

Keep your interviews short if possible. Don’t go for 30 minutes or an hour — right out of the gate. You can do 25-min or even 10-min interviews where you focus on the most important questions and get meaningful insights quickly.

- Opportunity to Influence Roadmap

If you’re talking to existing customers or power users, give them a chance to contribute to the product roadmap. Share upcoming features with them before announcing it on your blog or social and stay in touch to maintain good relationships. When the time comes, they’ll be happy to participate in your research interviews and share feedback.

We hope this article has been helpful. In summary, remember that it is important to get creative, leverage existing user recruiting tools and research partners, make it personal, ask good questions, respect everyone’s time, show that you care, and ensure that the interview is also valuable to the participants. We love the user research process and are always looking for ways to improve our methods. What has worked best for you?

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