Bonus research: Do the recruiting yourself

There are some brilliant questions on Quora. This morning, I was prompted to answer one about recruiting.

The question asker asked, How do I recruit prospective customers to shadow as a part of a user-centered design approach? The asker expanded, thusly:

I’m interested in shadowing prospective customers in order to better understand how my tool can fit into their life and complement, supplement, or replace the existing tools that they use. How do I find prospective customers? How do I convince them to let me shadow them?

Seemed like a very thoughtful question. I have some experience with recruiting for field studies and other user research, so I thought I might share my lessons learned. Here’s my answer. Would love to hear yours.


I’ve learned many recruiting lessons the hard way. Recruiting can be challenging, but it can also be reallyinteresting. I always find that I learn a lot in the recruiting process. Here are my pointers: Do the recruiting yourself. This gives you bonus research data about your people, and you may learn things you hadn’t anticipated that will influence how you conduct the study. It also starts a relationship with people that gets them invested in taking part. It’s the start of a conversation with you and your organization. They’re more likely to trust your motives and give you a deeper, richer view of their lives.

Focus on behavior, not demographics. If you want people to use your tool to do a particular thing, look for people who already do that somehow. For example, if you want people to use your design to store their photos and music and other content, find people who have a lot of that type of content and who are concerned about losing it. If you want people to use your design to generate invoices, find people who are doing that now and observe what they do to generate invoice when they’re in the mode of doing it. If you want people to use your design to remember to take their medicines at the right time in the right dosage, find people who have persistent conditions that need medication and who have been diagnosed with the type of condition you want to help them deal with.

You’ll see that I never once mentioned age, sex, income, location, education level, marital status – or any of those things that marketers go on. Because it doesn’t usually matter. What matters for UX design is behavior. Do people do the thing you want to make a design for?

Be as generous as you can with incentive/honorarium/compensation. People love gifts. They also love cash. The point is to show your appreciation for their help. They’re doing you a huge favor by spending time with you and letting you see their lives. Offer something your kind of people want.

Be flexible about days, times, number of hours. If you want to shadow people, you have to do it when they’re in the mode of doing the things you want to observe. My experience is that most interesting behavior (unless it is truly work related) doesn’t happen between 8am and 5pm Monday through Friday.

Get participants to opt in to the study. Sourcing for a field study is one of the most challenging steps to recruiting. A carefully worded ad on Craigslist can attract the right kind of people. Going through community organizations or professional associations can work well.

We practice something we call “snowball recruiting.” That means putting the word out among friends, family, and colleagues about the type of people you’re looking for and what you want to do in the session and asking your close ties to help you find people. Advantage: Participants come lightly pre-screened, so you know they’re not nuts. and they’re likely to be reliable because someone you know sent them. Snowball recruiting will also help establish you as legit with potential participants. The reputation management goes both ways. Disadvantage: This approach can take a little longer to generate leads. For a shadowing or field study, it can take 3-4 weeks to get people to come to you, screen them, and then schedule them to do the session you ultimately want to do.

You can recruit from Craigslist in a much shorter period, because the response is usually great, depending on the geographic area you’re recruiting in. However, there’s more filtering and more screening to be done.

Remember that every sample has biases. UX research is based on convenience samples rather than random or representative samples. That’s fine because you’re focusing on behavior and performance rather than generalized opinions and preferences. But the sources do influence the expertise and world view that people have. For example, if you’re observing people’s behavior around online security and you recruit just from Craigslist, you may find that most of the people who respond are not very concerned with protecting their online accounts. Or you might find the opposite.

Be genuinely, authentically interested in the people you want to observe without being creepy. These people are letting you into their lives. So, explain what you do and what you’re hoping to learn from the study. Treat them as your partner in answering your research questions. After all, you can’t find out what you want to know without them.

Follow up. Send a hand-written thank-you note. Yes, this is in addition to the incentive.

I’ve written a lot about recruiting for user research and usability tests. You can see all those articles here:

2 thoughts on “Bonus research: Do the recruiting yourself”

  1. A really great post Dana. I've also found that doing the recruitment myself delivers much better results that outsourcing it.

    Sure it takes time and can be frustrating but being in control of the relationship from start to finish helps to ensure that you get off on the right foot – vitally important for establishing a positive relationship with the “testee”.Who knows how the recruiter approached or spoke to the candidate?

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