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Lagom blog

How to successfully recruit the right user research participants

Liam King

Obviously user research is a really important part of website and digital service projects these days, but I know from experience as the lead quantitative researcher at Lagom that the research is only as good as the users you can get to participate.  

There is a general view that recruiting users for research is hard and very time consuming. An expensive recruitment agent will be happy to tell you this.  However, from my experience a good recruitment plan will cut down on the difficulties and time to make it a more affordable and positive experience.

In my role at Lagom, I have to find the right users for digital discovery and user research projects. Over the past few years I have refined my approach to overcoming the recurring problems of user research recruitment. And now I want to share a few of my insights with you:

Problem 1: You don’t really know who your users are.

This problem can be more common than you think. In this situation I set up a simple survey on the existing website or digital service to just ask the people using the service who they are. Leaving this survey open for several weeks and keeping it short encourage users to complete it in sufficient numbers to draw out great insight.

If a digital service already exists then the obvious place to survey users would be on the current service.  However if a digital service does not exist, then a survey would need to be promoted more broadly to find out who the potential users are.

From the survey data I map the users into user roles and support the client to prioritise them for the user research project.

I also use the survey to ask the users if they would be open to participate in user research and to leave their email address for follow up.  This means I have already started the user recruitment process without little effort.  This list can then be easily filtered and cut once I know more about which user roles the client prioritises for the research.

Problem 2: You don’t know where to find potential research participants.

Early on in a project I work with the client to map out the best avenues (channels) to engage with the prioritised users roles.  I often find that the client has a better understanding for where to find their users than they think.  This maybe through channels like their Twitter account, website, databases which they already have and other contacts from similar organisations/departments.

I brainstorm and map out potential recruitment channels with the client in the project kick-off session. We are clear which research activities we need, which user roles we are looking to recruit, and how many of them per activity. This gives everyone a clear focus on what we are actually trying to achieve with our recruitment. 

I brainstorm and map out potential recruitment channels with the client in the project kick-off session. We are clear which research activities we need, which user roles we are looking to recruit, and how many of them per activity. This gives everyone a clear focus on what we are actually trying to achieve with our recruitment. 

I quickly identify the users roles that will be the hardest to find and recruit for the research. They may be a particularly small, niche group, or extremely busy, like hospital doctors. I prioritise these roles and work up a recruitment strategy for them. Solutions from recent projects include targeted LinkedIn campaigns and targeted email shots (using the client's existing email list). 

Problem 3: Unsure how to start the conversation with potential user participants.

I use a combination of the channels I’ve already identified with clients to reach out to the potential research participants.  

Together with the client we construct carefully worded tweets, newsletters, snippets and website pop ups to attract participants.  These promotional statements always have a strong call to action to click through and complete our screening form.

The level of interest needs to be closely monitor and promotions changed according to the interest levels.

Problem 4: You aren't sure how to get the right user participants for the research.

The first thing to do is screen the users using a screening form. This is often where time is taken up, but it doesn’t have to be if you ask the users the right questions from the start and plan the project carefully before approaching them.

On the screener form, I ask potential participants what research activities they are interested in participating in, for example remote interviews, face-to-face usability testing, remote surveys. I give the participants as much information as I can, inc. description of the activity, location/s, dates and times.  I make it as easy as possible for the participants by using tick boxes.

Here is an example of a screening form I developed for some usability testing. The form was built in CitizenSpace but we also use Google Forms to do the job.

Here is an example of a screening form I developed for some usability testing. The form was built in CitizenSpace but we also use Google Forms to do the job.

If the promotion of the research has done the trick, I will now have a good database of user participants which you can easily filter to identify the best, willing and available users for each aspect of the research.

I usually use Google forms to create my screening forms so I can extract out the data into a Google or Excel spreadsheet which can be filtered easily.

The temptation at this point is to ask the potential participants lots of questions (while they are engaged), but like any good form design... I only ask what we really need to know at this point.

It also means I've only capture a minimal amount of personal data from participants inline with the Data Protection Act 1998.

Problem 5: You don’t want to end up with time wasters.

I always include in the screening form a free text section for participants to write any further comments about their role or availability for research activities.  As well as this being a great way to get more information to help with booking in participants, it can help with excluding users.

Some participants will use this opportunity to rant or even give themselves away as the wrong user role, and these participants may be more a hindrance to the research than a benefit so can be screened out early.

The best way to sift out time wasters is to ask them a few questions specific to their user role. For example with the user role health administrator I would ask them about the type of administration, when they last used the service and what they last used it for. They will have think about their response so you'll only get responses from those who are really game to support in the research. 

In the past I've worked with clients who had businesses trying to sell to them. These businesses would use the research as a means to gain access to the client.  These people were quickly weeded out when I asked them these specific questions.

If the user roles are professional people, many will use their work email which is also a good sign of them being sincere.  I don't rule out participants who use personal email accounts, I just make sure these participants are screened more thoroughly.  Users who use their work email account still might not be the user role which I am interested in, so this is still checked.

Overall this should help you confirm they are the role you are after.  It will also confirm if you need to screen the participants out of the research. If I was still unsure then I follow up with a short telephone call.  

It's better to have a five mins call than waste an entire hour in a usability testing suite with the client sitting behind the glass.

Problem 6: You're unsure how to book in participants

Once I have identified which user participants I want for each activity and have done the screening, I email the participants to book them in.

The email includes all the details of the activity including your contact details, time, date, location and a summary of what will happen on the day.

I always ask them to confirm by replying to the email - that way you know they are committed to participating.

Problem 7: You want to stop participants from dropping out or not turning up?

This is a big risk to the research.

One of our main tasks to overcome this problem is to email them two days before the activity to re-confirm their attendance. If they don’t reply, follow up with a phone call.

If I don't get confirmation then I have time to replace them with someone else from my list of participants.

At this point I would have already identified a number of possible back-up users. It may be appropriate to contact them prior to the activity to see if they are happy to be back up (especially those activities which are at specific times and are face-to-face, e.g usability testing at a usability lab).

If there is a “no-show” on the day then I don’t panic. I find out the reason for the no-show and re-book if it’s appropriate. Many activities can be done remotely including usability testing.

I recently had a situation where two consecutive participants who were booked for usability testing had to go to hospital.  It was too short notice to inform the back-ups, so instead we re-booked with these participants and did remote testing a week later. 

Problem 8: You are unsure if you need to pay participants?

One of the main costs may well be incentive payments.

At the start of a project during the initial discussions about user roles and identifying recruitment channels it may become apparent that some or all the users are not very engaged or are just too busy to participate. In these circumstance it may well be appropriate to introduce incentives to encourage these users to participate.

If this is the case I would recommend £1 for every minute of their time... so a 30 minute interview would cost £30.  

I often find that if participants are professionals within the workplace, then incentives are not needed, however paying travel expenses is.

Problem 9. You don't know what to do with your participant database once the research has finished.

I would always recommend that user research continues during the development and live phases of a digital service.

Fortunately, our clients now have a substantial database of users happy to participate in user research.  I would have already removed any users who I screened out.

If I was to continue with the client helping them with further research I would think about what worked and didn’t and amend my recruitment plan.  When I have exhausted my database and need fresh users for research I follow my updated recruitment plan, it is much quicker the second time round.

Here is a quick link to the summary page for the Data Protection Act. I'm careful not to keep information about participants any longer than is absolutely necessary and keep in a safe and secure environment.


Hopefully these pointers will give you what you need to recruit the right participants for your research.

Let us know how you get on and please share your best tips in participant recruitment.


Lagom Strategy specialises in working with in-house teams to deliver first-rate Discovery phases and user research for digital services. Lagom can support in recruiting participants for this type of research.