UX Research Recruiting: A 7-Step Checklist

May 20, 2024

Recruiting participants for UX research is one of the biggest challenges that UX professionals face. There’s a lot to handle—from finding enough participants who qualify for a particular study to screening them and ensuring that they actually show up for the research session.

At UXtweak, we recently finished a community project called Research Recruities, whose aim was to gather some great recruiting stories and professional advice and turn everything into a guide on how to overcome some of the most common recruiting challenges that UX professionals encounter. We collected the expert advice that you’ll find in this article as part of the Research Recruities project by UXtweak, which aimed to round up funny, relatable, and strange stories from recruiting.

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We reached out to 19 seasoned UX experts, asking them to share their go-to recruiting tips and the strategies that they use to make recruiting easier and more effective. Then we combined their answers and put them all together to create this seven-step recruiting checklist. This article includes advice from UX research professionals such as Stephanie Walter, Debbie Levitt, Nikki Anderson, Caitlin Sullivan, Michele Ronsen, Larry Marine and others, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1—Our UX researchers
Our UX researchers

The 7-Step Recruiting Checklist

Let’s jump right into the seven steps you need to take to make sure your next recruiting effort goes well. In summary, here’s our seven-step recruiting checklist:

  1. Refine participant criteria.
  2. Craft a detailed screening questionnaire.
  3. Diversify your recruitment methods.
  4. Leverage referrals.
  5. Contend with no-shows and cancellations.
  6. Prevent fraudulent and fake participants.
  7. Provide fair compensation.

1. Refine participant criteria.

Getting your participant targeting right is key to getting reliable results from your UX research. Nevertheless, our Research Recruities survey findings show that incorrect targeting is the top mistake that researchers make during recruitment. Let’s consider an example of how not to approach the process of recruiting from a particular user group and what to do instead, from Parker Sorensen, Associate Director, Conversion Optimization, at National University.

“This comes down to good test planning. I have seen—and in my early days of research did this myself—where researchers recruit [from] a general audience and try to have participants imagine a scenario. [For example], ‘imagine you are looking to purchase a home in the next 1–3 months.’ In my experience, it is difficult to impossible for participants to put themselves fully in the scenario because they are not actually there. A better way is to recruit the exact audience—that is, screen for ‘which of the following are you planning to do in the next 1–3 months,’ give 5–10 options, and make ‘purchase a home’ required.”

To ensure that you don’t recruit unqualified people for your study and actually obtain relevant insights in the end, it’s important to start your recruiting process by defining the right targeting criteria and doing the following:

  • Collaborate with stakeholders to refine participant criteria.
  • Understand the broader context of participants’ environments to enhance targeting accuracy.
  • Focus on task relevance and experience levels over basic demographic information.
  • Define your targeting criteria using the following attributes:
    • user behaviors—These include required activities, their frequency of occurrence, last occurrence, and specific usage patterns. For example, “used a ride-sharing application a minimum of four times during a recent month.”
    • psychographics—These include hobbies, interests, and opinions.
    • level of expertise with your product—Is the user a novice, a frequent user, or an expert user? How long has the user been using the product?
    • engagement with your competitors—Does the user have experience using your key competitors’ products?
    • technology savviness—Is the user a technically savvy or naive user?
    • demographics and geographies—What user demographics are common among your users? Do they differ across geographies?

Example: When targeting participants for a new fitness app, consider not just their age and fitness level but also their daily routines, motivations for exercising, and technology savviness. This approach ensures that the participants’ experiences and feedback are relevant to the application’s target user base.

2. Craft a detailed screening questionnaire.

According to our survey, a failure to screen participants properly is the most common mistake in research recruiting. Neglecting thorough screening can result in a participant group that doesn't reflect your target audience and can even attract scammers, which ultimately leads to skewed results and wasted resources.

Given the high stakes for your research’s success, it is vital to invest time in developing a meticulous screening process that can protect your study’s integrity, by doing the following:

  • Take the time to craft a detailed screening questionnaire that captures essential participant information. Nikki Anderson, Founder at User Research Academy, explains, that sometimes to achieve that you might need to make the screener a bit longer: “Think through every piece of information you need from the participant and craft that into a screener question. [This] might mean the screener [becomes] a bit longer—try not to go more than seven questions—but it will enable you to get the right people for your study!”
  • Use screening strategies to check the honesty of your respondents. For example, Parker Sorensen, Associate Director, Conversion Optimization, at National University, recommends: “Instead of directly asking if they plan to buy a car, provide a list of upcoming activities like buying a house, starting school, or going on vacation, including ‘buy a car’ among the choices. This method discourages participants from tailoring their responses just to join the study, helping you gather more genuine and useful data.
  • Avoid asking leading questions.
    Compare the following questions:
    • leading question: “How much time did you save using our new streamlined checkout process?”
    • neutral question: “Can you describe your experience using the new checkout process?”
  • Put your screener’s questions in the right order. This helps you to filter out those who don’t qualify from the very beginning.

3. Diversify your recruitment methods.

Finding the right participants is a significant challenge, especially in business-to-business (B2B) recruitment. Our qualitative data reveals that UX researchers often struggle in recruiting niche audiences, particularly under tight deadlines. This sometimes forces them to opt for a smaller sample size, seek out similar but not identical audiences, or rely on convenience sampling. Unfortunately, such compromises could negatively impact the representativeness and reliability of the study results. To reach a broader participant pool, do the following:

  • Diversify your recruitment channels. Leverage email messages, social-media posts, screener surveys within applications, and Customer Success team interactions. Plus, Aneta Kmiecik, Independent Senior UX Designer, suggests leveraging interactions with stakeholders: “Using your stakeholders can also be helpful, especially when we deal with enterprise clients. And, if you’re really struggling with recruiting your user group, try to use a proxy. Find similar people. Better this than nothing!”
  • Use local communities, forums, and social-media groups. These could be tailored to your target demographic.
  • Employ user panels. These let you find participants based on specific criteria.

Example: For a study about a gardening app, reach out to online gardening communities, local gardening clubs, and plant nurseries. This strategy ensures that you’re engaging with individuals who have a genuine interest in the topic.

4. Leverage referrals.

A great strategy for simplifying recruitment—without going for convenience sampling and compromising the result—is building your own pool of participants to whom you can reach out when in need.

To create a participant pool, you can leverage stakeholder connections and Customer Success team interactions. However, you might also want to try utilizing referrals. Product Discovery expert Caitlin Sullivan recommends doing the following:

“Ask every participant you find who is a really good fit if they know someone who might be up for joining your research. It can make recruiting the right kind of people much faster!”

This approach can speed up your recruitment process and connect you with high-quality candidates who might otherwise be difficult to find.

5. Contend with no-shows and cancellations.

No-shows and cancellations can indeed throw a wrench in the research process, leading to wasted resources and a lack of valuable insights. To mitigate this problem, experts recommend taking a strategic approach to study planning and having a solid backup plan, by doing the following.

  • over-recruiting—A practical tactic for tackling no-shows is to recruit a few extra participants. For qualitative studies, aim to recruit an additional one or two people. For quantitative research, increase your pool by 10%. A common scenario: not everyone completes the study or attends as planned. By planning ahead for this, you ensure that you hit your target number of participants. Debbie Levitt, MBA, UX Research Lead and Chief Experience Officer (CXO) told us: “Who you recruit is a make or break element, but many studies will have one or two people who are not great. Sometimes they have to be thrown out of the data. It’s best to recruit a few more than you need to account for no shows, cancellations, and people who don’t end up in the final set of data.”
  • sending reminders and confirmation email messages to participants—To cut down on the number of no-shows, set up a robust confirmation system for participants. This goes beyond just sending reminders. It’s about keeping a consistent line of communication open. By engaging participants and keeping them in the loop, you’re not just reminding them; you’re making them feel valued and integral to the study, which significantly lowers the chances of them missing their session.

6. Prevent fraudulent and fake participants.

The rise of fake participants, scammers, and artificial intelligence (AI) bots has increasingly troubled research teams. These individuals are skilled at outsmarting screening processes to join studies for which they are not the intended audience and are motivated primarily by the incentives they are offered.

Their input is often irrelevant and can significantly distort your research findings. With the rise of AI, distinguishing genuine participants from scammers is becoming even more challenging. It’s crucial to stay vigilant against such deceptive practices and protect your participant pool with advanced screening strategies.

Over time, UX professionals have developed a variety of methods for effectively identifying and excluding such fraudulent participants, ensuring the integrity and validity of their study results. To prevent the recruiting of fraudulent and fake research participants, do the following:

  • Do not allow participants to schedule study sessions directly once they’ve qualified through the screener. Michele Ronsen, author, researcher, educator, founder, and UX coach recommends the following: “Teams of scammers will sometimes retake screeners until they’ve passed, then use those answers to qualify others [using] additional identities or share the answers with other scammers. Inviting participants to schedule their sessions takes longer, [but] it offers additional benefits. It enables a secondary screening process, provides a chance to confirm the accuracy of the contact information [participants have] provided, and allows you to cross-reference responses to identify potential duplicates among the screeners.”
  • Use the fear-of-God. UX research leader Ki Aguero introduces another ingenious tactic to counter dishonesty. “If [we] can’t prescreen participants to confirm they’re being honest, I sometimes include a fear-of-god question. It’s a little reminder of the consequences of misrepresenting themselves. So, at the end of all the other screeners, I’ve got something like: ‘For this study, we are seeking [whatever attributes]. If you do not meet these attributes and proceed with the test, you may [be expelled from the panel, have the session canceled, not be paid for participating]. Are you sure you meet these criteria?’ It’s a great way to let anyone who’s being less than truthful out of your test before they get in there and muck up your data by pretending to be something they’re not.”
  • Begin your session with what seems like small talk but verifies location. Michele Ronsen, author, researcher, educator, founder, and UX coach, suggests doing the following: “Talk about the local weather, sports teams, or pop culture. Then reconfirm your study’s must-have criteria by asking your core screening questions again. Pay attention to whether they provide the same responses they submitted in their initial screener.”

7. Provide fair compensation.

Fair and prompt compensation is key to motivating participants to finish your study and keeping them on board for future research. Incentives play a vital role in recognizing the worth of the participants’ time and input, so it’s essential to give them the attention they deserve. To reward participants appropriately, do the following:

  • Compensate them on time. One of our respondents stresses the importance of timely compensation and explains perfectly why it’s so crucial: “This is something my company is currently struggling with, but what I've found, from my past company, is that when we pay the participants on time, they are more willing to participate again and even refer their network to us for future studies. Have a Research Operations team to manage the recruitment—from recruiting, screening, tracking participation, [and] payment. It is a full time job! Treat them well and appreciate them because recruitment is difficult. It changes with the seasons—such as needing to take into account holidays [and] school schedules if working with academia.”
  • Offer incentives that are meaningful and aligned with participants’ interests or needs. Apart from monetary incentives, it can sometimes be effective to provide something more specific that is tailored to your target audiences’ interests. Sajani Lokuge, a Senior UX Designer, emphasizes how important it is to offer incentives that resonate with participants, saying: “Offer incentives that align with the participants’ needs or interests. It could be something related to their work, making the participation more meaningful for them.”

Example: If your participants are pet owners participating in a study about a new pet-care app, consider offering pet-store gift cards as incentives.

The Stories

In addition to the expert tips we’ve provided here, we also collected some great recruiting stories and statistics about participant-recruiting mistakes from UX researchers. You can read all the stories on our blog: “Hilarious & Strange: UXR Participant Recruiting Stories That You Need to Hear.”

The Survey Results

In this article, we’ve provided our entire list of research recruiting tips, including valuable insights from industry experts. We sincerely hope that these tips help make your next recruiting effort more effective and go more smoothly. For all the survey results, read “Research Recruities: Award for the Best Recruiting Stories + Survey Results.” 

Marketing Executive and Head of Content at UXtweak

Barcelona, Spain

Daria KrasovskayaIn her almost four years at UXtweak, Daria has held a variety of positions, formerly as a Content Manager. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Marketing from Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, as well as a Bachelor’s in Business Administration and Management from The American Business School of Paris.  Read More

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