Finding UX Research Participants Free of Charge

Continuous Research

Running a continuous research practice

A column by Peter Veto
July 11, 2022

In the first installment of my new column Continuous Research, I looked at automating recruitment processes for user-research panels, or user panels. These are lists of relevant participants who would be motivated to join your research and help you understand your target personas through their participation. Having a user panel can be helpful to any company that is conducting UX research, but absolutely essential for companies who are conducting collaborative and continuous research. The foundation of these research methods is built on having frequent, lightweight touchpoints with customers, involving the whole product team. To ensure you’ll have enough people to talk to, you need to have enough sufficiently engaged participants who have the right backgrounds.

Conducting collaborative, continuous research is a great way to start UX research activities when you don’t yet have enough dedicated researchers, as is likely during a startup’s early stages. Plus, this is the period when your company needs to gather the most feedback about the product you’re building from your prospects and customers. You can use these insights to make your early-stage product really stand out. Unfortunately, this is also the time when you have the least resources to get the feedback you need.

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A Change in Mindset

Jared Spool is a UX research veteran and the biggest high-profile promoter of collaborative research. In his excellent video “How to Recruit Those Hard-to-Reach Research Participants,” he talks about transforming recruitment by changing the way in which we perceive recruiting. (While the video is free, you must sign up for Jared’s leadership community to view it.)

Jared believes that many hardships of recruitment are problems of our own making. When we look at recruitment as a transactional, administrative process, whose goal is getting butts in seats as quickly as possible so we can move on to other tasks that add more value, it does indeed become a pain. Jared believes that four key mindset changes can enable you to integrate recruitment into your user-research processes and deliver insights of a much higher quality. These four mindset changes evolve from one another sequentially.

  1. Treat recruitment as part of the research process rather than a low-value task that is the entry point to research. Many people try to cut corners by going to paid-panel providers for recruitment. Paid panels have three major problems. You start with confirmation bias because you define an ideal participant persona up front, then filter for that persona, rather than your personas emerging through your user interviews. Paid-panel providers do not offer sufficient granularity in their filtering for many niche use cases. Plus, many panel participants who sign up with a provider are in it for the money. It is better to consider recruitment a high-value task that must provide the right participant pool, representing your target population with statistical significance. Otherwise, it’s garbage in, garbage out.
  2. Build relationships instead of seeking transactions. When you’re hunting for research participants to verify that what you’ve built is good enough to release to the market, you commoditize research participation. You complete a simple transaction, then move ahead and repeat the whole process the next time you need participants. According to Jared, you should think of recruiting participants as making friends for life. When you initiate and nurture long-term relationships with your participants, you can uncover many hidden truths and build a research partnership for the future.
  3. Don’t look at one single product or feature, but holistically involve your panel in your long-term product roadmap. When you build relationships, your participants become invested in your long-term vision, too. Think of your panel as an advisory board for product development.
  4. Look for research participants at the margins of your target group. This is where you’ll discover your real unique-selling propositions (USPs). If you shoot for the happy-path persona, you’ll miss a lot of hidden insights and introduce confirmation bias at the same time. People at the margins can challenge your base assumptions about your product and guide you to valuable insights.

Building lasting relationships in a quasi-advisory capacity sounds much better than getting a handful of participants for a wireframe check, doesn’t it? As Jared frames recruitment, it does hold a lot of value, so it is worth an investment of your time and attention.

Filling Your Recruitment Pipeline

Now that you’re looking at recruitment through some different lenses, let’s consider some practical methods of filling your recruitment pipeline.

Your Existing User Base

Duh. Your existing users are the most evident source of research participants. They already have a vested interest in using your product and making it better, so are well placed to become your long-term research partners, as Jared suggests. One excellent recruitment tactic is to send a quarterly Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey to your users and invite all respondents to join your user panel.

Are you just starting out so have few or no users? No problem. Expand your efforts to your sales prospects and even leads. When you’re an early-stage startup, you’ll do your product development working with a few key prospects and clients anyway, so you might as well formalize the relationship. In this case, you can place a sticky call to action in your app or on your home page and invite people to join your beta community.

Whatever your organization’s maturity, work with your client-facing organization—your sales, sales-support, customer-service, and customer-success teams—and leverage their customer research as well. Because knowing the customer is such an integral part of their success, they always do their own homework. Involve them in your recruitment efforts as well.

Paid-Recruitment Ads

You can use paid search or social ads to boost the visibility of your research-panel program. This does entail costs and their filters are not very granular, but ads can give your traffic a much-needed boost in many cases.

Our team at Airtime did this in the beginning, using a very limited budget on LinkedIn. It was a moderate success. We defined the following filters:

  1. Countries—The UK, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, and Switzerland
  2. Job titles—Research-operations managers, user-experience researchers, and user researchers
  3. Skills—User experience, UX research, and user research

We also defined the following filter logic: 1 AND (2 OR 3). LinkedIn can make your search relatively granular by using skills and job titles. While it’s still not guaranteed that all of the people you reach would be relevant, they would be close proxies. Once you have your target group, send a sponsored message through a campaign and include a link to your panel-signup landing page.

Unpaid Ads Through Social Posting

If money’s tight or you simply don’t find paid ads to be targeted well enough, you can always advertise your panel through posts in different social-media groups. These are well-defined communities, so you can be sure that you’ll reach your target audience. For example, we joined the Research Ops community on Slack very early in our development process to get feedback on our early design ideas, recruit research participants, and find out what others in the Research Ops community were working on.

However, you must be careful to observe community guidelines. Most communities don’t allow hard sells. For example, the Research Ops community doesn’t permit the selling of products or services, event evangelism, surveying, canvassing, or offering promotions to community members. But they do have a specific channel for products and services, as well as another for taking part in research.

Content Marketing

Content marketing is a good way to hide your self-promotion efforts within useful content. This leverages research that you’re already doing for yourself. You might as well package it in a way that would be enjoyable and valuable to your target audience. The Airtime blog and the Collaborative User Research Playbook are both good examples.

Content marketing is the next level of social posting. You first provide value to your visitors to convince them of your credibility, in the hope that some of them would sign up for your email newsletter, beta-testing program, or user panel. If you believe you’re providing sufficient value, you can be more forceful and create a paywall that requires people to sign up by providing their email address before they can view or download your content. Email lists are the best-converting sales tools.

If you want to build lasting relationships, don’t skimp on your effort. Provide real value to your audience. If your content were a barely disguised sales pitch, no one would give you their email address or sign up.

Talking to Headhunters

Partnering with headhunters is an approach I learned about during one of my prospect interviews. It is especially hard to find the right participants when you want to recruit for very specific, niche roles. When publicly available information doesn’t provide the level of granularity that you need, headhunters are your best bet. This is another form of recruitment after all, just not for a job. Reach out to specialized headhunters to gain access to their prospect list, or work out a custom deal and involve them in your entire recruitment process. This could be a pricey endeavor though.

Paid-Panel Providers

I’m not a fan of paid-panel providers for the reasons that Jared outlines. They usually make recruitment a transactional, one-off event; their filters are not sufficiently granular, and they cost a lot. Our team did verify these claims in its early days and found them to be true. We wanted to speak with ten user researchers who had more than five years of experience. One leading panel provider who has hundreds of thousands of available participants couldn’t make this happen for us. The closest match they could recommend was to go for ten technology product managers and hope most had roles relating to user research. The minimum fee for any engagement was about $1,600–$2,100. An expensive Hail Mary.


So far, I've discussed how to build an automated pipeline for your user panel and how to fill your pipeline. In my next column, I’ll consider what you should do when new people join your user panel. What should you ask them? How should you tag your participants? How can you nurture the new relationship to keep the person engaged and get the most out of it? Find out all of this and more in my upcoming column!

The important thing to remember is that your relationships with the members of your user panels are human relationships that need careful attention to blossom. Follow Jared’s lead and look upon building your user panel as making friends for life. 

Head of Operations at Airtime

Berlin, Germany

Peter VetoAt Airtime, a software company that develops collaborative user-research tools and helps organizations implement collaborative-research practices, Peter heads up operations. Peter and his two founding partners launched their user-research platform because they felt that many products—whether digital or physical, business to consumer (B2C) or business to business (B2B)—are less than optimal and could be improved through the simple exercise of listening to customers. Peter has a diverse background—from investment banking to institutional sales to working for asset managers, asset owners, and broker-dealers in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. For seven years, Peter worked for the leading international provider of equity indices and investment analytics. Following his stint in the financial industry, Peter switched to freelance startup consulting and investment-analytics publishing. Peter has a Masters in Capital Markets from the Corvinus University of Budapest.  Read More

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