Setting up your is a bit like building a house: first you lay the foundation and then build the frame using pillars, beams, ceilings and the roof. Subsequently, the walls are built around the frame along with basic fittings of doors, windows followed by electricity wiring and water piping. Eventually, the choice of materials for flooring, paint colours, etc. influence the aesthetics. A round of touch ups and cleaning ensures the house is ready to move in. This house building analogy explains how each of the different components are sequenced, interconnected and important. The different components of setting and conducting a user are work similarly and are listed here:

  • establishing clear goals i.e. why are we doing this research and what do we intend to find out
  • designing the research — choose the right methodology: interviews, unmoderated remote testing, focus group, field study, etc., establishing the Personas of target audience, number of needed, scenarios, questionnaire, etc.
  • arranging research materials including logistics e.g. mobile app software, devices and deciding a venue for research for instance, usability lab with one-way mirror, interview like setup, etc.
  • the respondents matching your target audience
  • conducting the research, noting down feedback and observations
  • Analysing of feedback from users
  • Synthesizing, preparing and presenting the findings and recommendations

To do an effective user research, each of the above component is just as important as the others. Often considered painful and time taking, is the recruitment of respondents. The right participants make all the difference in the world to the outcome of your user research. Depending on the nature of behavioral attributes in respondents’ profiles, the difficulty and effort in recruitment varies.

To get the right respondents for your research, you may decide to go DIY (do-it-yourself) or hire a recruitment agency. Just for being comprehensive on the sources and methods for respondent recruitment, several options are mentioned here.

#1 Hire a recruitment agency

Recruitment agencies seem the easiest to get to. However, agencies have their own lead time to recruitment services. Do remember to review their screening question list to that any mistake doesn’t end up in you getting the wrong respondents for your user research.

If you are time constrained for your user research, use a specialised user research online recruitment service that offers you the facility of hiring the right people for online as well as in-person research. Choose the one for most number of behavioural criteria so that you can easily match the target profiles you are looking for.

#2 Use online Panel vendors

As mentioned in this Quora post, several recruitment vendors offer this service online. Panel recruitment vendors come in handy but the pricing could be high. Re-check on the participants’ demographics and psychographics because the database information might not be most up-to-date.

#3 Use an online community platform

For online user studies, there are several platforms, most popular being Reddit, Craiglist, Ethnio, etc. With close to a quarter million unique users and thousands of communities or “subreddits,” Reddit can be the place to connect with people over a range of niche topics. You need to gauge the motivation of participants to participate in your research. Some are focussed on making quick money, and getting feedback from those participants could be bad for your research.

#4 Publish a recruitment ad on Social media

This is by far the simplest and cost effective DIY method. Although the responses vary on the way you create the Ad and the budget, it works. You can either ask basic screening questions in the signup from (not recommended) or after you have received a number of interested entries based on some basic criteria. This DIY process increases your workload, at the same time you are in complete control of who you are recruiting.

#5 Recruit from your own Panel

Depending upon the size of your company and customer base, you may want to setup and nurture your own User Panel. Although building a Panel costs a significant amount of money and effort, the investment pays off in the longer run. The respondents would be available faster than the other routes and you already know a lot about their behavioral attributes. The quick availability also matches the (short, 2–3 weeks) agile development cycles of your product development. The challenge here is to keep the Panelists engaged and making sure that all Panelists evenly get the opportunities to participate in user research. In any case avoid creating “Experienced testers”. Engaging a company, specialising in UX or user research, to create and manage your Panel helps to keep your focus on managing other finer aspects of user research.

#6 Use the existing customers

The existing customers can provide good feedback on new features or extensions to existing products or services because they already have first hand experience of using your platform. This approach doesn’t work too well due to the recency effect bias, etc. and not recommended in case of entirely new products. In such cases, you need to opt for other sources for recruitment.

#7 Get colleagues and friends to Test

Also known as Hallway testing, you can offer an small incentive to colleagues and friends to persuade them for participating in the your research. This method works but is suited for more quick feedback / uncovering obvious problems. These participants would know you and might have to complete their own assignments at hand, the results might be biased. Stay away from this method for detailed and extensive user research.

Once you have secured a list of interested participants, the next step is to match them with your exact criteria or needs. No matter which recruitment method you use, there are still some more issues you need to tackle during and after recruitment. Here are some which must not go wrong:

Pre-qualification calls

The moment you or your recruitment agency has a list of people to call, the next step is to check whether those people meet your criteria. Several behavioural qualities are not easy to determine over an online form — speaking over phone wins hands down here. For instance, whether a person can articulate her thoughts can be determined by speaking to that person on a phone call and requesting her views on a topic as general as — “Is coffee at Starbucks overpriced?”.

Few tips to remember: be polite, respect the time of the other person and keep your commitment for a call back if you have made one.

It needs to be taken care that the pre-qualification call is not mistaken for a phone survey. In the beginning of the call it’s advisable to inform that the purpose of your call is to check the qualification, how many minutes the call is going to take and upon qualification what to expect after the call. For the pre-qualification call you need to prepare a screener questionnaire, more of it below.

Screener questionnaire

A screener is like a series of nearly 10–12 questions questions with sequences of branching logic (aka skip logic) and termination points. If at any point during the screener call, the person doesn’t qualify for your criteria, you must politely end the call to save yours and the person’s time.

Certain things need to be taken care of while designing a screening questionnaire. The most important point to remember is that you are screening for behaviours and not demographics (which can be obtained via simple online surveys or Google form). For instance, if you are recruiting users who shop frequently online, you must establish earlier whether the person shops online at all. Over the phone screener, asking them “Do you shop clothes online?” makes less sense over asking them “What are the triggers for you to order clothes online?”.

The other important thing in screener questionnaire is to ensure that the recruitment criteria is not revealed to the potential respondent. Frame the questions with over four answer options is a good idea than questions that ask for a simple positive or negative answer.

It is a very good practice is to do a dry run of your screener with a colleague over a phone call and tweak the questions further to get them absolutely right.

To be sensitive to the person you are calling, communicating qualification outcome is better after you have screened through the list of people. Communicating the outcome immediately could result in hurt feelings, in case of not qualified. In case of a qualified respondent, it can give rise to curious follow-up questions from the respondent and, that can hurt your screening schedule.

Preparing the research schedules

After you have screened the candidates via running the screener on phone calls, it’s time to review the results and prepare a schedule for your user research. Look through the list of qualified respondents and then send out an email listing out the details about the user study. Make sure to include sufficient details so that the respondents know what they are supposed to do and bring along. For instance, if you need your respondents to download an under development mobile App, it’s worth sharing a step-by-step document to download the App. Use images if necessary.

You need to appreciate that just like yourself, other people also have busy lives. It’s highly recommended to offer your respondents a couple of time slots (for a moderated research) and let them pick their preferred time-slot. Afterall, if a respondent is overly worried about missing their next appointment during the research, it doesn’t help your research results.

Preparing and opening up a Google form to indicate the preferred time slots of interest, also helps to schedule the interviews at a mutually convenient time. It’s possible that more than one respondent is interested in a particular time-slot, and there the ‘first-come-first-serve’ rule comes to your rescue. However you need to be clear in expression of this rule upfront to avoid any unhappy respondents.

Ensuring the respondents show up for moderated research and managing low response rates for online research

We can’t predict the future. Same is also true with schedule of your respondents. Besides making a Calendar invite, always send an email or SMS reminder one day before the user research.

Any unplanned events can popup last minute forcing them to request you a reschedule or, declining to attend your user research altogether. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to recruit slightly over the number of required respondents. Inform the extra respondents that they have been placed in a waitlist. As a rule of thumb, I keep four people in the waitlist for moderated in person research or focus groups — an online updated schedule is maintained and and shared with them so that they are always aware of the possibility of being invited. As soon as you recognize a no-show, it is better to send SMS or call the waitlisted respondents. Consider the respondents also need to make some adjustments in their personal / work schedules.

For unmoderated online research, a well maintained User Panel can give your the right respondents on time. So make the choice of user panel wisely.


Getting the right respondents is critical for the correct outcome of a user research. It takes time and may appear a bit deviating from the rest of the work that you as a user researcher do. User research provides you actionable insights that make a business disrupt and become highly profitable. Basing your user research on the wrong set of participants can result in business losses and the organization can also lose faith on user research. Carefully selecting respondents from the right sources is a skill which user researchers must develop and refine as they grow in their careers.

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