Lessons on budgeting for user research participant recruitment

Helen Taylor
Budgeting for recruitment

At Lagom, I lead the recruitment of user research participants for our research and Discovery projects for websites and other digital services. Nearly all for Government and public organisations.

A big part of my role is determining how much to budget for user participants to make sure we engage with enough of the right people for a successful research project.

Too many participants and we get diminishing returns on the expense of recruitment. Too few and we have patchy evidence and a lack of confidence in the research insights. It’s tricky.

So in this post I want to share a few of the questions, tips and lessons I’ve learned over the years to strike that balance, specifically:

  • How I calculate the numbers of research participants required
  • Knowing when and when not to pay incentives to research participants
  • How much to pay for incentives
  • How to pay and handle travel expenses

Who am I recruiting and what for?

Job one is to answer these questions by talking with the lead user researcher and client team on the project:

  1. What are the priority user roles for the research? Journalists, teachers, students, military personnel… (see below for more on this).
  2. How many user participants do we need per activity? We need to be confident we will get enough input from each role per activity to get the sufficient data/info to make reliable decisions.
  3. What user research activities are planned? E.g user interviews, online surveys, card sorts, usability tests.
  4. How long will is each activity expected to take? E.g. 30 mins per interview, 45 mins for a usability test.
  5. Are the activities face-to-face or remote? E.g can the usability tests be a combination of face-to-face and remote sessions?
  6. Where will the face-to-face activities will be held? This might be over several locations.

Not all user roles are the same to recruit

Recruiting GPs is different to recruiting university students, or business owners or care home managers. They all have different motivations, commitments, availability patterns, and sensitivity to incentives.

I have to get a handle on that quickly.

During our research project kick-off sessions I work with the client and lead researcher to map out the user roles for the digital service we are looking at. I then ask the team to prioritise which roles to initially focus on in the research.

It may only be one user role, or half a dozen – and on some projects there are still a lot of unknowns about who the users are – hence the need for a user research project.

Once the user roles have been prioritised, I find out a little more about them:

  1. Are they external or internal (to the client organisation)?
  2. Are they professional people and closely aligned with a particular job role e.g. a journalist, social worker, or police officer?
  3. Or do they fall under a broader citizen role with a particular topic interest or behaviour (that is relevant to the digital service) e.g. a healthcare patient?
  4. Does the client already have access / channels of communication to each user role group? This will make recruitment much easier.
  5. Are they located or concentrated regionally or nationally?
  6. Are these users already engaged? Existing transactional services usually have a body of users that are very keen to share their thoughts about their current experience, yet a new service won’t have that go-to group to recruit from.

Do we need to incentivise our research?

Don’t assume you have to or you can easily waste budget. Here are some tips to help you decide if you need to incentivise your research or not.

Reasons not to offer incentives:

  1. There is an existing service which supports users in their work – as these users are usually engaged enough (aka a captive audience!) to help improve the service as it will directly benefit them
  2. The participant’s workplace will allow them to take part in the research during the working day – getting hold of professionals in working hours can be HARD
  3. Users are already engaged with the client and are already active in their push for a new / better service

In my experience, if users are in a busy, professional role, e.g commissioners of health services, incentives won’t encourage them to participate.

In these cases, good communication which explains the purpose of the research will make the biggest difference. 

We’ve found that these types of users either won’t accept an incentive payment, will request a payment be made to a charity / cause as an alternative or will use the incentive payment to buy resources for their workplace / cause.

Reasons to offer incentives:

  1. Users of a new service, may not realise the potential benefit to them (of participating)
  2. Occasional users of an existing service are also unlikely to see a benefit to participating

If I do decide to incentivise the research, I usually pay £1 for every minute of the participant’s time, so a 30 minute phone interview is budgeted for £30.

What about travel expenses?

If someone has to travel to take part in our research activity then we always offer to pay their travel expenses.

This should raise the question: is there a more convenient place for potential participants to take part in the research activity?

Holding court in a single usability lab for the duration of a project and expecting participants to travel long distances can:

  1. Exclude perfectly appropriate user participants which can (depending on the subject) give a false picture of the wider user group
  2. Make it harder to recruit sufficient participants by practically imposing a radius on potential participants

Ask the question: can the researcher go out to the participants? Where is a smart place for them to go and reduce the travel times for participants?

On a recent project for the RAF we needed to recruit the spouses of serving RAF personnel for a round of usability testing. So our user researcher was sent off to Lincolnshire (Also known as “Bomber County” because of its historic concentration of RAF Stations(.

As soon as we booked a meeting room in the centre of Lincoln it became much easier to fill an entire day of usability testing with these types of users because they only had to travel 20 miles tops to attend. 

And some other expenses to consider

Do you need to recruit professionals for your research? We regularly do and that means it doesn’t really come down to travel expenses or incentive payments.

It sometimes means compensating their employer for their time or the cost to fill the gap left when they come and take part in our research.

On a recent project for NHS England we needed to recruit medical professionals to take part in our user needs workshops (amongst other research activities).

So we budgeted and paid for the cost of a locum GP so we could have a GP collaborate with us and our client for an entire morning. 

That may seem excessive, but the voice of that GP in the room was invaluable and ensured that point of view was heard by all of us.

Well thanks for reading. I hope this helps you when you are planning and budgeting for your next user research project.

Lagom user research & discovery services

We specialise in working with in-house teams to deliver first-rate user research and full Discovery phases for websites and digital services.

We’ll ensure you can make smart decisions on how to meet your users’ needs before wasting time and money going in the wrong direction.

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