Research Recruiters, Your Best Friends

Bryan McClain · September 13, 2011 · Short URL:

By Demetrius Madrigal and Bryan McClain

Research is all about people, so it’s important to find the right people when you’re conducting user research. Whenever you’re trying to get accurate data about a product through a study such as a focus group, usability test, or expert interview, it is essential that your participants represent the larger population. To ensure that they do, you need to locate participants who fit into a specific demographic, and the best way to do that is to hire a professional recruiter.

Why a Reputable Recruiter Is Essential to the Research Process

When conducting research, it is very important that the population you’re examining ties directly to the product or service that’s under development. If you sampled the wrong user population, the results would guide the design and engineering teams down the wrong path, leading to the development of a product that very few people would use.

When you hire a reputable recruiter to assist with participant sourcing, they use a highly structured, well thought out, and detailed screening process to ensure that they pull the right types of people into the study. The recruiting process is a partnership between the researcher and the recruiter. For example, while a researcher might request participants who have limited smartphone experience, the recruiter might refine that request, focusing on people who don’t own or operate a smartphone on a regular basis and, thus, helping to more specifically define the intended participant. As a result, the participants who are in the study will understand the concept of a smartphone, but won’t own one. It’s such tiny details as these that play a role in acquiring the right people and ensuring your study’s success.

Building the Screener

Typically, a recruiter requires you to develop a participant screener that outlines the types of people you want to recruit. The screener includes information such as age, education, income level, and experience with certain technologies. It is also very important to add behavioral questions such as How many hours per day do you watch television? or How many times a week do you go shopping? A good recruiter examines your screener and asks clarifying questions to further refine it before starting the recruitment process. This includes examining your questions to determine whether some are too strict, making it hard to gather together enough participants, or too loose, resulting in too wide an array of participants.

The screener also includes the incentives participants are to receive for helping with your study, and the recruiter will help you to determine the right amount for the incentive to ensure that you’ll get the people you need. If you provide too small an incentive, people might feel it’s not worth their time to participate. However, if you provide too large an incentive, you’ll find some people simply want to collect the cash and don’t care about helping you refine the design of a new product you’re building.

Locating the Participants

Using Craigslist is definitely an option for recruitment, but most reputable recruiters have an extensive database of participants they can contact at a moment’s notice. Their databases indicate what participants respond well during sessions, deceive or lie to researchers, have been no-shows for sessions, or have been involved in too many studies, so are becoming professional participants. Recruiters’ databases also help identify which participants are very communicative and which tend to provide only superficial data. Some of these databases are extremely impressive and powerful, allowing recruiters to gather high-quality participants with surprising speed.

When necessary, a recruiter might use Craigslist to find participants, but they’ll use a rigorous screening process to ensure the participants truly meet the needs of the researcher. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for participants to deceive recruiters and researchers just to be part of a study and collect the incentive. However, recruiter databases can help you to avoid this by tracking these kinds of participants and eliminating them from consideration during future recruitment efforts.

Without recruiters and their participant databases, you’ll often be gambling with your recruiting—significantly increasing the likelihood that you may inadvertently recruit a participant who is interested only in collecting the incentive. When research sessions go to waste because of bad participants, you end up wasting a great many resources, including the researcher’s time, the cost of the incentive, and the opportunity cost of not obtaining good data.

Participant Management

A reputable recruitment firm ensures that participant management is part of the recruitment process. Most firms include this as part of their core service offering. Participant management includes calling the participants two or three times in the days leading up to your study to ensure they actually show up, handling cancellations, and dealing with any last-minute issues such as shifting session times. Usually, for a small additional charge, a recruitment firm can also mail out participant incentives, so the researcher does not have to deal with money on the day of the study.

Getting participants to show up for a study is much more difficult than it sounds, which makes participant management a great deal more important than you might expect. People who agree to participate in research usually have good intentions, but when they get stuck at work or have sick kids or car problems, you’ll need a recruiter who quickly notices such issues and can find replacements at the last minute. We’ve found that, with the right recruiter and good participant management, the percentage of participants who actually show up for studies tends to be around 90 percent; without participant management, its closer to 60 percent. This part of the process can make or break your study.

Best Practices When Working with a Recruiter

These guidelines can help you to successfully engage a recruiter and keep the recruitment process moving smoothly.

  1. Discuss the types of participants you need with your team before you contact a recruiter.
  2. Be ready to quickly build a participant screener when you engage a recruiter.
  3. Provide the recruiter with any personas or other documents that describe the product’s intended users.
  4. Discuss the screener and your research goals with the recruiter to give him or her a thorough understanding of your needs.
  5. Respect the opinions of the recruiter, because they work with researchers and study coordinators all the time.
  6. Address issues with individual participants with your recruiter, so they can record them for future reference.
  7. Make sure your recruiter provides up-to-date participant schedules, including participant contact information.


Professional recruiters are an extremely valuable part of the research process, so if your budget allows you to use one, we highly recommend that you do. As we said earlier, getting the right participants is just as important as conducting the research. Getting feedback from the wrong participants can have huge negative consequences for your product and may even lead to its failure upon its release. Even if your team discovers problems with a design that is based on faulty research prior to a product’s release, solving them is often very costly and time consuming.

If your budget does not allow you to hire a recruiter, we recommend that you create a very detailed screener for your screening process, and ask people who have a lot of research experience to review it for you. Doing so, helps to ensure that your screener is solid, so you’ll tap the right people to help out with your research.

When you find recruiters who do a good job of finding quality participants for your studies, make sure you hold on to them. They will become your best friend.

We are always looking for ideas and comments on how to improve the recruitment process for user research, so if you have something to share, please let us know.

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