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Whether you’re a full-time user researcher, CX professional, product manager, or designer —it’s likely that user research recruiting will be relevant to you at some point if it hasn’t been already. When we think about user research, our minds usually jump to the methodology: how to best conduct user interviews or analyze usability sessions, for example. But the truth is this: who you recruit and how you recruit your research participants is one of the biggest determinants of how reliable your insights will be and how smoothly your research project will go.

Let’s dive into some of the best practices when it comes to recruiting participants and take a look at some of the recruitment tools out there that can help you get the job done.

Define Your Ideal Research Participants First

It’s important to take the time to review your research goals and key objectives before you start recruiting anyone. What types of users will best help you answer your primary research questions? Should the people you recruit resemble your ideal user persona?

You will want to make an organized list of any relevant characteristics, ranging from specific demographics, products that people use or don’t use, and so on.  It’s important to have this list well-defined before you start using any tools to recruit users.

Find The Right User Research Recruiting Tool For Your Needs

When you’re doing research with your organization’s own users, you may be able to handle recruitment internally. For example, you can work with your marketing team to send emails to relevant users for recruitment purposes. 

Within your email, you should have a clear call-to-action for users to sign up—perhaps a Calendly link to sign up for an interview, if that’s your chosen methodology—and make it loud and clear that you’re offering an incentive for participating (we’ll talk more about incentives soon).

When you can’t recruit research participants internally, your best bet is to use one of the many user research tools out there to find the best participants.  Here are my two favorite, tried-and-true recruitment tools and what I recommend using them for.

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UserTesting is great for usability studies

Usability testing is a core UX research method used by UX professionals of all kinds, and for good reason. It’s a relatively straightforward method that involves giving users tasks to complete and looking for UX issues within various product flows. 

What you may not know is that participant recruitment is an essential component of usability studies because it’s almost never true that you want to create an optimal user experience for everyone. You want to create an optimal user experience for your target audience. Based on my personal experience with usertesting.com, I find it to be extremely useful for recruiting participants to do usability testing for a few main reasons:

  1. They have a very large community of testers and so no matter how niche your target audience is, you are likely to find enough potential participants for your study.
  2. Your research participants complete the study within the UserTesting platform and you can easily view each session within the platform itself. You don’t have to use any other software for the entire project, from recruitment all the way through to analysis—everything is straightforward and automated.
  3. You can exclude users who have recently tested your product on the platform and target based on what devices or operating systems they use. These types of details can be super impactful in terms of the quality and relevance of the users that you’re testing with.

UserTesting also offers a feature, called Live Conversations, where you can book Zoom interviews with research participants from their community. In these sessions, you can do live usability testing or conduct user interviews. This is a useful feature, but it does come with some downsides compared to UserInterviews.com, my preferred choice for recruiting user interview participants (more on UserInterviews.com below). 

First of all, the options for screener questions with Live Conversations are limited to fairly basic logic and you don’t get a chance to review a user’s responses and decide whether to accept or reject them. If a user passes your screener, their interview is automatically scheduled. The reason that I consider this a significant downside is that ending up with a user interview that isn’t truly relevant (as opposed to a recorded usability session) is a huge waste of time and resources.

Overall, I’d wholeheartedly recommend UserTesting for usability studies. Now, let’s dive into User Interviews.

User Interviews helps you find the right participants for user interviews

Almost all researchers and product professionals will utilize user interview research methodology at some point, and it’s a core method for truly understanding the behaviors, motivations, challenges, and all other aspects of your user base beyond UX. User Interviews is a platform that specializes in one thing – user interviews, of course—and does it incredibly well. 

The primary benefits of using User Interviews for recruiting users to interview are:

  1. Very detailed screener options. Not only can you filter based on device and demographics, but there are complex logic capabilities and other ways to fine-tune your screener and make sure that you’re recruiting the ideal participants.
  2. You have the ability to do a secondary screen of participants before you agree to schedule an interview. What happens is that after you create a screener, you can view a list of qualified participants on your dashboard and decide who you want to invite to an interview based on their profile and responses. This means that you can ask open-ended questions in your screener that allow you to use your judgment in terms of how relevant a participant is. For example, you may ask for links to a potential participant’s social media so that you can take a look and decide if they create a certain type of content that you’re interested in learning more about.
  3. Their customer support team is very active and knowledgeable. I’ve often asked for their advice about how exactly to screen for the best users when I’m stuck and gotten extremely helpful examples.
  4. You can always message participants, before and after interviews, via text message right from the User Interviews platform. This is a great tool for confirming interview times or any other reason you may need to communicate with a participant.

If your budget allows, I’d highly recommend UserInterviews.com as the best way to recruit research participants for user interviews, whether they’re in-person or virtual. Though I’ve tried other tools, I’ve never quite found one that rivals the usefulness of the User Interviews platform.

Can you recruit users manually, without a platform?

Often, CX and product professionals wonder if they can manually find users on social media and write to them in order to schedule interviews. The appeal of this method, of course, is that you can avoid the fees charged by various recruitment platforms. However, based on many attempts to do just this on my own, there are considerable downsides to manual recruitment.

  1. Your response rates tend to be low. Particularly if you’re using social media platforms, there is an apparent tendency for users to ignore, or completely miss, messages from people that they don’t know. Unless you’re a highly recognizable brand, it’s possible that you will have to send a LOT of messages just to get a handful of research participants. Though it doesn’t cost money directly, your time investment could be viewed as costly as well.
  2. You can’t know a user’s full relevance without a conversation. Instead of having a straightforward screener that weeds out users who are not totally relevant to your study, it’s likely that you’ll need to have a conversation on whatever social media platform you’re using to gauge relevance. Not only is this a time investment, but it tends to elongate the recruitment process and push back your overall research project timeline.
  3. You tend to experience more no-shows—that is, users who don’t show up at the appointed time. The recruitment platforms include users who have opted in to participate in research in order to make some extra money. If users don’t show up, they are often suspended or banned from the platform. This results in a much higher rate of users who show up when they’re supposed to compare to users who sign up for research randomly via a social media platform.

If you’re in a pinch, manual recruitment is better than nothing as long as you’re aware of the potential pitfalls—not least of which is how time-consuming it is. Overall, though, using a reputable recruiting platform is almost always worth the budget allocation.

Participant Recruitment Screeners Can’t Be An Afterthought

A screener is a series of questions, ideally used within a research participant recruitment platform, that helps you determine whether a specific user is relevant to your research study. For example, if you’re looking for iPhone users who are self-employed and regularly post video content to social media, you have to design a screener that truly verifies that a user is a good match for your study.

Here are a few pro tips to keep in mind when you build your participant screener:

  • Sometimes users lie in order to qualify for studies and get paid—but there are ways to mitigate this issue. One popular way to do this is to include a fake answer choice and reject all users who do it. For example, let’s say that you want to recruit users who use a specific app. You can provide users with a list of apps, one or two of which are fake. This will weed out the users who simply check all available options so that they’re sure to qualify.
  • Make sure that users can’t look ahead on your screener to identify what you’re really looking for in terms of qualifying characteristics. Each screener question should be on a new page so that users answer one question at a time, honestly, without knowing how specific your screener gets. 
  • Have someone else review your screener before you send it out. Sometimes, screener logic and the wording of screener questions are complex. When you’ve looked at it for too long, you may miss something. Since screeners really make or break in terms of the reliability of your research, it’s always worth asking a team member to take a look.

Your participant screener survey, regardless of what recruitment method you use, is key. Without a great screener, you may end up with less reliable results because you weren’t using the proper research participants. Make sure that you’re investing time and thought into your screener—it’s always worthwhile!

Do you have to offer users an incentive to participate in user research?

Here is the short answer—yes. Compensating users for their time is surely an ethical consideration, but you should also be aware that the choice of whether or not to provide incentives very much affects your research.

Essentially, users who agree to participate in research studies for free create a self-selecting bias. Most people have full lives. They have jobs, friends, families, hobbies—or all of the above. People who are willing to give their time for free, particularly for a for-profit user research initiative, are a very specific group of people. For example, it’s possible that only the most enthusiastic power users—or the most dissatisfied haters—are likely to speak with you for free. In the case of brand enthusiasts, they may get a kick out of talking to someone from one of their favorite companies. In the case of angry customers, they may simply want to be heard. Though information from both of those groups could be valuable, as a researcher, you have to wonder: who am I missing here? What about people who are not on the most extreme ends of the spectrum? 

Offering incentives increase the relevance of your research project to a wider variety of people because compensation gives yet another reason that participation can be appealing. Not offering incentives is not only the ethical approach to using users’ time for your own business benefit, but it’s also eliminating recruitment bias that could affect your research results.

What type of incentives can I offer to user participants?

If you use a user recruitment platform, such as UserTesting or User Interviews, you have the added benefit of the platform handling incentives. In some cases, you can choose the monetary amount that a user receives for participation, and the platform handles all of the logistics.

Whether you’re handling incentives manually or not, both cash and gift cards are great incentives that are universally appreciated by a wide variety of people. In most cases, I don’t recommend offering participants free products for participation in research because once again, this creates a bias among your research participants: only users who think that getting your product is worth giving their personal time will participate. In most cases, user research benefits from having all types of users—including those who lack enthusiasm or awareness about your product!

Recruiting Participants Is A Key Part Of The Research Process

No matter what number of participants you need to recruit, or what you’re looking for in terms of ideal user research participants – recruitment is key. Make sure that you choose the right recruitment platform, consult stakeholders about who should qualify for a study, build an iron-proof screener study, and offer the right incentives to research participants. If you do all of that, you’re well on your way to conducting user research that will yield actionable insights to stakeholders all over your organization.

If you’re interested in learning more about user research, I highly recommend subscribing to CX Lead newsletter. Happy researching!

Related read: Best Usability Testing Tools for Improving Your UX

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By Cori Widen

Cori Widen currently leads the UX Research team at Lightricks. She worked in the tech industry for 10 years in various product marketing roles before honing in on her passion for understanding the user and transitioning to research.