6 Ways to Recruit User Research Participants within Budget

Michael Wong Oct 26, 2021 • 8 min read
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When it comes to user research recruitment, without clear UX/UI training you might find yourself in a frenzy. “How do I find the right participants for this research?” “How do I conduct my research on a budget?” and the most common question of all, “how do I incentivise my user research participants?”

Finding and recruiting user research participants can be as simple as ABC. Let’s find out how.

What is User Research?

User experience research is a methodical and systematic investigation used to gather insights that help to inform your design process. 

Traditionally undertaken before a project has even begun, user research uses different types of methods to gather both quantitative and qualitative data.  

Why Is User Research Important?

For product success, user research is the all-important foundation for design strategy. Not only does user research give you all the numbers and data you’ll need to back up design decisions and direction, but it also helps you to create the best product for users. 

As Global VP of Design and Chief Design Officer for IBM Arin Bhowmick defines it:

“User research focuses on understanding user expectations, behaviours, needs, and motivations through methodical, investigative approaches. Insights are then used to ensure that all product design decisions do benefit the user.”

Simply put, user research helps to put your design in context and make sure you continue to design with the user in mind. It helps you gain a better understanding of the industry and product pain points, and it gives you real-world insights into how people think and interact with a product or service. 

Above all, it’s important to know that these insights should not be the driving force behind your decisions, but instead be what informs them. 

Who Should You Target for User Research?

Your target market should not be based on demographics. Instead, you need to focus on the problem and pain points. 

Within your research, most designers automatically begin looking for participants within a certain demographic. For example, they begin searching for individuals aged 18-24 who own their own car. 

However, for more authentic and accurate research data, instead, focus on individuals of all ages and backgrounds who are struggling to make a decision on car insurance. 

In the group of 18-24-year-olds, how many are actually looking for a solution for car insurance? Your numbers become muddied as the audience intent varies. But when you shift focus to the avatars struggling with the same problem, you have a clear cut target audience. 

Now, the caveat here is that different age groups will generally have nuances in terms of their tech-savviness and understanding of technology. Remember that effective research is informed by problems and insights, not age, gender, psychographics, or demographics. 

That’s ok! 

This is where the evaluative research comes in. When you’ve collected all your data, then you can synthesize, distil, and seek out those patterns and commonalities in your data.

That’s just part of the process.

How to Find Effective Participants for User Research

Make sure to track everything you do. Create spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of not only who you’re speaking with, but who you’d love to have on board. 

As you connect with more and more people, make sure to draft and redraft your invitation and social posts. A good template to follow is:

  • The objective of the research and who you are
  • If applicable, who you’re looking for 
  • How long the research will take
  • What do they get out of it (cards, discounts, gifts, etc.)

Where to Find Participants for User Research

There are plenty of ways you can find the right participants for your user research. The following methods are incredibly effective because you can get them done in a few minutes, and they don’t cost you a cent. 

Who doesn’t love effortless, high-quality research on a budget?

Relevant Interest Groups 

I recommend starting by combing through social media platforms and forums, searching specifically for topics pertaining to your problem. This means searching through Facebook Groups, Reddit threads, Meetups, Quora, Twitter, and even TikTok to see what people are discussing.

By far the most success can be found in Facebook groups. In particular, local entrepreneurial or startup groups. The members of these groups tend to be very understanding of the importance of research, and they’re generally more than happy to help out. 

You get people who are savvy, traits of the early adopter, decent insightsUnless you include less tech-savvy participants you’ll get a biased perspective 

Friends and Family

Leverage your inner circle, and get real-time user research from your nearest and dearest.

You can find participants for user research in your circle of friends and family. Leveraging your inner circle is a great way to balance participants and even better if you include people who are not so tech-savvy. 

Bear in mind that family members and friends do come with some bias towards your efforts, so try to encourage more feedback than just “this is great.”

Immediate, easy-to-access, familiarDue to the pre-existing relationship, their responses can be biased, overly polite, swayed, or influenced.

Second to Third Connections

A very simple hack to identifying participants for user research is to set your Facebook posts to Public sharing. Putting out a general call for research participants is the modern-day equivalent of putting a call-out on a notice board. 

When you post public, people can also tag their friends, and the post is promoted to their network. Suddenly, you have the eyeballs of second and third connections, increasing the chances that someone sees your post and thinks “that sounds really interesting.” 

It’s not a sure-fire-win, but it’s easy to do and good to have in your back pocket. 

Fresh new perspectives, no pre-existing relationships, casts a wider netGenerally require an incentive, shotgun approach

Internal Teams

If you are working in a large team or an organisation, you have quite a large pool of people to tap into. As a side note, always make sure that this kind of research is permissible within company boundaries.

Here’s a template you can use for recruiting research users from your internal teams:

  1. Greeting
  2. Give context to the project (what you’re doing, what you need, how long it will take them)
  3. Praise them and say that their opinion and thoughts would be very valuable to your work, and you respect their work (remember, they’re doing you a favour!)
  4. Request help with the project

Make sure you use a catchy subject line in the email. For example, your email may look like this:

Subject: I have something for you!

Hi Jane,

Hope your week is going well. 

I’m currently working on XYZ, for Project A. It’s a brand new system for this incredible app I’m working on for John Smith. 

As someone who is incredibly skilled with all things tech, I would love to get your expert opinion on this aspect of the project. This project is for something I’ve been testing for a while and having you as a research participant would be incredibly valuable.

It would only take around 5 minutes of your time (plus, it’s kind of fun!) and at the end of the research, you’ll get a $20 Amazon voucher as a thank you gift. 

You can also reach out directly on Slack or your corporate Instant messaging platform which is usually just as effective. Just remember that some people may not have the capacity to help you out, and that’s okay! We’re all busy bees. If someone politely declines, just say thank you for your time and keep searching for other participants. 

Easy, practical, and real insightsDeep into the experience, very specific feedback, bias per their experience, habituation. 

Sales/Customer Support Teams

Most organisations have an onboarding process where new employees spend some time working with the support teams to help immerse them in the customer feedback experience. This means monitoring, answering, and assessing what real customers are saying about their experience. 

This immersion and opportunity are seriously underrated as a way to garner insights. As UX writer Taylor Palmer points out, “they usually spend more time than anyone talking to customers, and most can effortlessly surface customer pains and feature requests.” 

The support teams are on the front lines receiving user research and feedback, you couldn’t pay for this kind of feedback!

Organising a quick catch-up with the support teams, monthly catchups, or opening up a Slack channel can help you collect data from the teams. Include product and support teams in the channel and chats so they can collaborate and share high priority tickets from customers.

Easy, practical, and authentic unbiased insightsDeep into the experience, very specific feedback, bias per their experience, habituation. 

Turn Power Users into Beta Users

At HiPages (ASX: HPG), a listed company in Australia where I led product design, we formed a small group of beta users that were “power users” on the platform. Whenever there was a new feature in the works, they would bring the power users into the process to test ideas and garner insights.

This method was a great way to improve customer relations, and also get the benefit of speaking with real customers who were invested in improving the user experience. As with all research, remember that people do come with their own personal preferences and thoughts on projects. These power users are huge fans of the product, and rose-tinted glasses in research can lead to unconscious bias opinions.  

Practical, giving real insights, with the added benefit of improving user/company relationshipsDeep into the experience, very specific feedback, bias per their experience, habituation. 

Be Your Own User Research Participant

If you’re struggling to find the right participants or if you’re short on time, then the answer is simple: you take on the role yourself and become the research participant. 

It’s a common misconception that designers are not users. This could not be further from the truth.

As a designer, it’s our job to be the user too. 

One of the leading skills that separate a good designer from a brilliant one is having empathy. Empathy ranks as the number one core soft skill to have as a designer. 

Always choose to completely immerse yourself in the problems that you’re trying to solve. You can’t provide a full solution without understanding every angle of the problem. 

For example, I am leading the re-design of a crypto exchange that just raised $40M USD and I personally put in $2,000 to buy their own exchange token. Why? Because I want to experience their product first-hand. 

Other products I have led strategy and design for, and personally immerse myself in include:

  • HiPages: Booked my own tradespeople to renovate my carpet and my own home
  • Snappr: Booked one of my team’s company photoshoots through the platform
  • HeyYou: Ordered a year’s worth of coffee and picked it up with the app (hello, productivity!)

Finding user research participants, in particular finding effective and valuable participants, is the key to a good design strategy. But remember, you should also join in the fun to see what it’s like from both sides of the coin. Who knows what you’ll pick up on with a new lens?

How to Incentivise Your Participants

Now you’ve got the right participants to conduct your user research, how do you convince them to play ball? By providing your research participants with incentives, you’re not only encouraging their participation but showing gratitude for their time. 

The incentivisation process should be traceable and trackable. Avoid giving cash, and instead, say thank you with gift cards so you can expense it under the business. 

Make sure it’s sent via email, again so you can track and record it. Some good examples include gift cards for Amazon, Netflix, or Apple Gift Cards. 

As a polite finisher, send a follow-up email to your participant thanking them for their time. Usually, most gift card services don’t allow you to attach the card to an email, so make sure to mention that they have a gift card arriving separately. 

If sending gift cards isn’t your style, think of other ways your participants might benefit from the research. Can you provide them with a discount code? An invitation to upcoming promotions? What about early access? 

Just remember that with user research, it’s always the carrot, not the stick. Offer value in return, and you’ll get the data you need. 

How to Find Effective User Research Participants 

User research is one of the most valuable tools in your UX arsenal. As someone who has experienced every angle of the design world, from user to designer to UX/UI design instructor,  I can say with complete confidence that creating a game-changing design stems from your research. 

Finding user research participants doesn’t need to cost a fortune or take up hours of your time. It’s as simple as leveraging existing networks, asking the right target audience, and remembering to always lead with value. If all else fails, you can roll up your sleeves and become a participant yourself. After all, it’s what good designers do! 

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