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Use These "Pre-Recruiting" Rituals to Pick the Right Participants Every Time

Get the right research participants by understanding your project's goals and target users

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Emma McKhann

Recruiting the wrong participants can make your research project an absolute disaster.

You can end up speaking to people who won't provide you with relevant data and whose personalities aren’t suited for your research.

By tapping into the right participants, you can gather meaningful insights that give direction to your product.

How to recruit participants

The best way to ensure you are recruiting the right participants for a study is to understand the goals of the research. You do this by creating a problem statement.

The way you can form a problem statement is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • "What am I trying to learn?"
  • "What must the research answer?"
  • "What does my team need to know at the end of the project?"

For example: Since buying a house is a very complex process, we seek to understand how people make the decisions to purchase a new home.

The research findings should answer the problem statement. The problem statement is WHAT you will be studying, and is the overarching topic of your research project.

With this statement, you can better understand the types of people you are looking for, and it gives you a jumping-off point for recruitment. Without this, it can be challenging to know who to target to get the best information. However, this statement is still broad, so you will need to dive deeper into deciding who exactly would make sense to talk to.

Even if you do have personas, they might not have the information needed to recruit for a specific project properly.

Nikki Anderson

Before recruiting

Approximate your user (organizations without personas or live products)

Before we even start recruiting, we have to understand who our users are so we can optimize our recruiting efforts.

Some companies have personas, customer segments, or user profiles to help understand who your target or ideal customer is. Some don't. Even if you do have personas, they might not have the information needed to recruit for a specific project properly.

However, recruiting is generally more difficult for organizations without personas or those who do not yet have a product. Here are some ways to overcome these challenges:

  • Take a day to sit in a room and define your target user. You can bring in internal stakeholders that may have a good idea of who the target user will look like (such as marketing, sales, customer support), and come up with proto-personas. These are wire frames of personas that consist of hypotheses about who your user is and are a starting point for who you should be talking to
  • Look at competitors similar to you. There is a good chance that you and your competitors will have similar audiences, and can help you narrow your scope for your target audience. You can even recruit people who use the competitor's product, and during the interview, ask them how they would make it better - a bit of a bonus! Just be careful not to "copy and paste" what a competitor is doing, as you never know their internal structure and goals.

For example: With the home-buying statement, you can run a workshop with internal stakeholders listing out all of the different aspects of the process you want to learn. A technique I use for running these types of workshops is affinity diagramming. Then, write down all of the assumptions you have about these potential users. Take the time to look at home-buying competitors (such as real estate agencies or search-based websites) and see who they are targeting.

List the criteria of your ideal participants

Now comes a more fun part. After sitting down and brainstorming some different ideas about potential users, you can now start to think about what you are looking for in a participant.

Avoid using demographics completely, or, at least, leaving them to the end of the exercise. Instead of age, gender, and income, consider these other topics:

  • Particular behaviors you are looking for
    • Have searched for a house in the past three weeks
    • Have never bought a home before
    • The person "in charge" of the home-buying experience*
  • Product usage
    • Have used your product in the past month
    • Have used a competitor's product in the past month
  • Goals that might be important to your users
    • Would like to move in the next two months
    • Are looking for specific criteria in a house (ex: yard, kid-friendly, location)
  • Habits they might have
    • Checking for homes every day

After you define these more significant areas, you can dial in on information like demographics. Generally, however, these are not always helpful in recruitment, unless you have particular needs for gender, income, or location.

There have been times where I have recruited for a study and have ended up interviewing the more "passive" person in the decision-making process. Sometimes this is helpful, but it can end up being a waste of time if you need to delve into the process. Make sure to include this type of information.

Users vs non-users

Although we typically talk to our users, I think it is also important to consider people who don't use a particular product/service. Talking to non-users is especially relevant for organizations that do not yet have a product.

Recruiting and talking to non-users can be much more challenging than finding people who currently use your product, but it is possible. The most critical first step is to define why you want to talk to non-users. I generally speak to non-users for:

  • Jobs-to-Be-Done Interviews
  • Understanding how to onboard new users
  • Breaking into a new market/segment

Then, set the criteria for recruitment for non-users. They can have similar habits to the ideal participant criteria above but will have additional points, such as:

  1. Unfamiliar with the brand/product
  2. Using a competitor product
  3. Recently stopped using a competitor product
  4. Bad experiences with a competitor or similar products
  5. People with loyalty to another brand
  6. Life circumstances

Sometimes it really can be impossible for a particular person to use your product, and that is why we still need to choose and prioritize our non-users. I would much rather speak to people with loyalty to another brand than people who are utterly uninterested in the topic my product covers. Also, both people with bad previous experiences and misinformation are great candidates to understand better the gaps and negativity they perceive in your product.

Find the right recruitment channels

Once you have a better understanding of who your user might be, and your list of ideal criteria, it is off to recruitment. Tools, such as dscout, make the life of a user researcher a thousand times easier. Some other channels for quick recruiting can include:

  • Relevant Facebook groups
  • Reddit threads on your subject
  • LinkedIn posts or advertisements
  • Reaching out to slack communities

During recruiting

Use a Screener Survey

By preparing a recruiting screener, you can prevent potential wrong participants from being part of your study.

Your screener survey is based on the ideal participant criteria and will include information that helps you determine the best candidates. Look back at your list from earlier and decide the most important habits, goals, or behaviors for your study.

Additionally, it is crucial to write screener surveys in a manner that wouldn't allow participants to understand how to get accepted into the study. Unfortunately, there are many people out there who enjoy participating and making money from user testing.

We want to dodge these participants. One way is by avoiding yes/no questions and including more specific questions. For example, if you ask participants the date they last searched for a home, or how often they do this over two weeks, they will not know the "correct" answer. These questions will get you talking to the people you need.

After recruiting

Tag participants

If you happen to interview a fantastic participant, be sure to make a note of that somewhere. Write down why that participant was helpful (ex: they easily opened up, they had relevant information for X topic), and which topic you spoke to them about. You can also note when a participant wasn't particularly helpful, so you make sure to screen them out of future projects (unless they would be suited for them, of course)!

I can't stress how essential it is to recruit the best participants for your research study. When you are in the field of user research, many people are skeptical of the value you can bring, and the speed at which you can deliver. By speaking to the right people, you are capturing the best information possible to enable your teams to make better decisions.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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