DIY Recruiting for User Research: The B&B Model


Colleen is a User Experience Researcher at GA in New York. 

Recruiting for user research takes time and close attention to detail. It could easily be compared to running a bed and breakfast with users similar to houseguests. Here at GA, we use a few different do-it-yourself methods, but my recipe for recruiting always includes the user, preparation, organization and a little dash of hospitality.

As a researcher, you can recruit for yourself or hire a firm to do it for you. Agencies are helpful when you need to target a larger sample of users, although they are more expensive, and some firms only recruit for usability tests or focus groups and not other kinds of research. Online testing services will find you remote testers, although you have less control over the participants selected.

Even though it’s time-consuming, at GA we do most of our own recruiting — even for remote tests — because it affords us greater control over the process. It’s also more cost-effective and allows a faster feedback loop.

House Guests: Know Thy User

First you need to advertise. When I’m recruiting, I try to avoid friends and family members, unless they specifically fall into our target group of users. It’s best to test with actual users (or potential customers) to get the most relevant feedback. Sometimes I look for early adopters of a product, or even self-proclaimed technophobes (my favorite!) because they’re often better at discovering usability problems. I avoid reusing participants more than once every six months, because people can quickly become accustomed to the types of questions/tasks you give them, and are less likely to provide unfiltered responses and reactions.

Where should you recruit? Everywhere! I’ve used social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook) as well as marketing/email lists, in-person networking events, parties, and sometimes I even stop students in the hallway. If you’re desperate, you can stand outside of Starbucks.

It’s really important to ‘know thy user.’ You’re much more likely to find participants who think you’re speaking their language and understand them. Flattery works occasionally, as does urgency (“We need your help NOW”), and sometimes competition or selectiveness work, too (“IF you are selected…”). And of course, the incentive is key. I’m keenly aware of the value of our users’ time, and the incentive is a recognition of their time and gratitude for it.

Preparation + Organization: Screeners, Reminders, NDAs

It’s essential when recruiting online or via social media to have a good screener survey. A good screener provides you enough information to determine if people fall in your target demographic, but it also hides your research intent. People will try to say what they think you want to hear, but the screener can help you weed out those individuals. It’s best to keep a spreadsheet (or database) of all the actual (and potential) participants you’ve tried to recruit, and document if participants should be contacted again.

I also send reminders with details to the participant the day or morning before a research session. Details include the location, directions if they need it, the time, and any other additional information they would need, such as requiring ID for building access, signing in, who they’ll be meeting with. Any other details such as if food/drink are provided help the participant prepare and establish a comfort level.

How you come across at the first meeting is also an important part of establishing a participant’s comfort level is. If you are ready and organized, greet them enthusiastically, and lead the interview, a participant is more likely to feel like they’re in good hands.

Should you use Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)? It depends on the type of interview. If it’s just a casual conversation or a shorter interview, I tend not to use them. However, for a more formal usability test for a brand new product/service, it’s a widely-used best practice. NDAs can be tricky, and I’ve had people balk as soon as any “legalese” language was presented. It’s a judgment call you have to make. Same for recording releases. You should always ask for permission to record participants, whether it be audio, video, or screen recordings. If a user isn’t comfortable with being videotaped, it’s possible they may allow an audio recording instead.

A Dash of Hospitality

In UX and user research we often talk about empathy, or knowing/sharing someone else’s feelings and emotions, but I’d say that when it comes to recruiting, hospitality is more effective. Although it’s a key part of the research interview, empathy doesn’t necessarily expect that you will ACT on the emotions a participant feels, but hospitality expects even more. A good host or hostess does what they can to make another person feel comfortable and willing to talk, offers refreshments, shows them the restroom, provides their incentive, makes introductions, and engages in polite small-talk.

Hospitality is essentially about honoring participants as people and human beings, and not as merely “users.” It’s a form of showing respect and appreciation for someone’s time and effort. And the first impression is crucial — it’s incredibly difficult after a bad first impression to get an interview back on track. A good first impression starts with an enthusiastic greeting and ends with an appreciative thank-you (verbally during the session, and always a note or email later on). You should always send your participants thank-yous; it’s a final sign of respect and courtesy, and it opens up the door for future participation or networking.

What recruiting tips/tools do you utilize?


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Are you in NYC? Come learn more about using social media to recruit for user research on March 10th, 2014.