The Perils of Client Recruiting

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
December 2, 2019

Sometimes your clients can be the best source of user-research participants. This is especially true when a client already has access to lists of customers, members, or employees. Your clients would usually have closer relationships with potential participants than you do. These potential participants might know your client personally, have heard of him or her, or at least have an existing relationship with the client’s organization. Such potential participants would be more likely to pay attention to research requests—and consider them legitimate—if they came from a person they know or a company with which they’re familiar.

Often, as a UX researcher, you’re an unknown third-party to these potential participants. They don’t know you or your company. Plus, they don’t know any recruiting companies you might work with either. They might consider research requests as spam or a scam.

Therefore, it can be very helpful to have your clients perform at least the initial steps of recruiting. However, because your clients aren’t recruiting experts, there are some perils and pitfalls you should avoid. In this column, I’ll discuss how to avoid the potential problems that can arise when clients handle recruiting.

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Your Client Might Not Have Time to Handle Recruiting

Recruiting and scheduling user-research participants involves a lot of time, effort, coordination, organization, and attention to detail. Recruiting can involve emailing potential participants, responding to email messages, scheduling participants, and sending out meeting invitations. Often a client is someone who is higher up in their organization, who already has many responsibilities. These people don’t usually have the time or attention to devote to recruiting.

Solution: Ask Your Client to Delegate Recruiting

Inform your clients about what’s involved in recruiting and scheduling participants, including how much time it takes and the amount of communication and coordination it takes. Suggest their delegating recruiting to someone on their team who has the time and organizational skills to handle this work. An administrative assistant or junior employee might be best equipped to handle such tasks. Ensure that they give the person to whom they delegate these tasks adequate time to devote to recruiting—in addition to handling their other job responsibilities. It might be best for the initial email message to come from your client, then for their recruiting assistant to handle all follow-up communications and scheduling.

Your Client Might Not Describe the Research Properly

Your clients probably don’t know enough about your research and what it involves to describe your research adequately to potential participants. If you leave it up to them to describe your research, they’ll likely give the impression that you’re setting up a group meeting, a focus group, or an interview. As a result, participants might be confused and unprepared.

Solution: Write a Script for Your Client to Use

Write the text of an email message or phone script for your clients to use when describing your research to potential participants. This gives you control over the description of your research, but the request comes from someone the potential participants know—or at least from someone in an organization they know. Your client will thank you.

Your Client Might Not Recruit the Right People

Your clients might not know what types of people to recruit. Without guidance, they might recruit participants with the wrong characteristics. For example, they might think you’d want to include experts in the system that you’re researching. Or they might just contact a broad range of people and recruit whoever responds.

Solution: Define and Target the Right Types of Participants to Recruit

Work with your clients to define the types of participants you want them to recruit, based on their characteristics and behavior. You can then use your clients’ existing lists of customers, members, or employees to identify potential participants who meet those characteristics. Ideally, your clients would have enough information about candidates to narrow down their list to a smaller group of potential participants who match your needs.

If targeting your ideal participants requires more finesse, create a recruiting screener. A screener is a list of questions that the recruiter should ask potential participants to narrow down candidates to the types of participants you want. Either your clients can call potential participants and ask them the screener questions, or you can hire a recruiting company and have them recruit from a client’s narrowed-down list of candidates using the screener. Ensure that your clients send you updates on the participants they’ve recruited to ensure that they fit the right profile.

Your Client Might Not Schedule Sessions Effectively

If you leave the scheduling of research sessions completely up to your clients, they might not schedule them very effectively. For example, they might schedule sessions too loosely, at dates and times that are most convenient for participants. This can result in an inefficient schedule that is too spread out for you—for example, with two participants on Monday, one on Tuesday, three on Wednesday, none on Thursday, two on Friday, and two on the following Tuesday. Or they might schedule sessions back to back, with no breaks in between them and no time for meals. They might schedule sessions illogically, without due consideration of location, requiring you to travel back and forth, from location to location, in an inefficient order.

Solution: Give Your Client a Schedule to Follow

To avoid inefficient scheduling, give your clients a schedule of timeslots into which they can slot the participants. This ensures they create a schedule with the proper breaks between sessions. If your research involves visiting participants in person, remind your clients to think about the participants’ locations, give you adequate time to travel between them, and ensure that you can visit them in a logical, efficient order.

Your Client Might Not Prepare Participants for the Sessions

Even after research participants have been scheduled, they still might not have an adequate understanding of what to expect in the session or how to prepare for it. However, your client is not the right person to communicate that. Avoid giving your clients too many details to communicate in the initial email message or follow-up scheduling messages. Providing too much information up front could just confuse potential participants, discouraging them from wanting to read the initial or follow-up email messages. However, once participants have volunteered and are scheduled, you can provide additional details about your research.

Solution: Contact Scheduled Participants to Introduce Yourself and the Research

Once research participants are scheduled, you should introduce yourself to them and give them a better idea of what to expect during their research session. As necessary, provide instructions to participants about what they need to prepare. Contacting participants ahead of time is a good way to put them at ease and give them a more accurate understanding of what to expect. It’s also a good time to better explain what you’ll be doing during the session. For example, if you want to observe participants performing their typical work tasks, set that expectation in your introductory email message. This ensures they won’t expect that you’ll simply be interviewing them.

Sometimes Clients Do Find the Best Participants

Yes, clients can sometimes be the best source of research participants. Many already have lists of potential participants, with enough data to let you filter their list down to the types of people you need. Potential participants are more likely to pay attention to and trust research requests coming from people or companies they know. However, clients often don’t have the knowledge, time, or organizational skills necessary to recruit participants effectively. By following the tips in this article, you can work together with your clients to ensure that you recruit the best possible participants. 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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