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6 ways to recruit user research participants within budget

8 min read
October 26, 2021
6 ways to recruit user research participants within budget


6 ways to recruit user research participants within budget

User research recruitment might seem like a difficult task without clear UX/UI training. You might find yourself asking how to find the right participants, how to conduct research on a budget, and of course, how to incentivize participants.

In this article, we will explore all you need to know about user research recruitment and help make the process as simple as ever, including:

  • The definition of user research
  • Why a UX/UI designer needs to conduct user research
  • How to find the right participants for user research
  • Leveraging your own existing connections as user research participants
  • How to incentivize participants without spending money

What is user research?

User experience research is a systematic method used to gather insights to help inform your design process.

Traditionally undertaken before a project has even begun, user research uses different types of methods to gather both quantitative and qualitative data.  

Why is user research important?

User Research

User research is the all-important foundation for a successful product design strategy. Not only does user research give you all the data you’ll need to support design decisions and direction, but it also helps you to create the best product for users.

As defined by Arin Bhowmick, IBM’s Global VP of Design and Chief Design Officer:

“User research focuses on understanding user expectations, behaviors, needs, and motivations through methodical, investigative approaches. Insights are then used to ensure that all product design decisions do benefit the user.”

Simply put, user research helps to put the user at the forefront of the design because it allows designers to gain a better understanding of the industry and product pain points and gives real-world insights into how people think and interact with a product or service.

Most importantly, these insights should not be the driving force of your decisions. They should, instead, be what informs them.

Whom should you target for user research?

Your target market should be defined by the problem and pain points, instead of being based on demographics.

During the research stage of a product, most designers automatically begin looking for participants within a certain demographic.

For example, a group of individuals aged 18–24 who own their own car. In this example,  a more authentic approach to research would be to target individuals of all ages and backgrounds who are struggling to make a decision on car insurance.

Think of it this way: In the group of 18-year-olds, how many are actually looking for a car insurance solution? Your numbers become muddied as the audience intent varies, but when you shift focus to the avatars struggling with the same problem, you have a clear-cut target audience.

The caveat here is that different age groups will generally have nuances in terms of their tech-savviness and understanding of technology. Remember that effective research is informed by problems and insights; not age, gender, psychographics, or demographics.

Evaluative research is part of the process: Once you’ve collected all your data, then you can synthesize, distill, and seek out the patterns and commonalities that can inform your decisions.

How to find effective participants for user research

Tracking is key when finding effective participants. Make sure to track everything you do by creating spreadsheets of not only whom you’re speaking with but also whom you’d love to have on board.

As you connect with more people, make sure to fine-tune your invitation and social posts. A good template to follow is:

  • The objective of the research and who you are
  • If applicable, who you’re looking for
  • How long the research will take
  • What do they get out of it (cards, discounts, gifts, etc.)

Where to find participants for user research

You can find the right participants for your user research in plenty of ways, but the following methods are incredibly effective because they’re budget-friendly and efficient, saving your efforts on building the research.

Relevant interest groups

I recommend starting by combing through social media platforms and forums, searching specifically for topics pertaining to your problem. This means searching through Facebook groups, Reddit threads, Meetups, Quora, Twitter, and even TikTok to see what people are discussing.

Within the Designership community, our students and alumni often share experiences and any current user research projects. This is because, with thousands of members across the globe, our Figma Masterclass community has become one of the best communities for inspiration, research points, and design discussions.

The most success can be found in Facebook groups by far, in particular, local entrepreneurial or startup groups. The members of these groups tend to understand the importance of research, and they’re generally more than happy to help out.

PROS:CONS:You get savvy people, traits of the early adopter, decent insightsUnless you include tech-savvy participants, you’ll get a biased perspective

Friends and family

You can easily find participants for real-time user research in your inner circle. It’s a great way to balance participants as some of your friends and family may not be as tech-savvy.

Remember that inviting family members and friends does come with a bias towards your efforts, so encouraging feedback that goes beyond “this is great” is essential.

PROS:CONS:Immediate, easy-to-access, familiarDue to a pre-existing relationship, their responses can be biased, overly polite, swayed, or influenced.

Second to third connections

A straightforward hack to identifying participants for user research is to set your Facebook posts to public sharing. Putting out a general call for research participants is the modern-day equivalent of putting a call-out on a notice board.

When you post publicly, users can tag their friends or share your post, promoting your research to their network. It may not be a sure-fire success, but it’s an easy way to expand your breach.

PROS:CONS:Fresh new perspectives, no pre-existing relationships, cast a wider netGenerally require an incentive, shotgun approach

Internal teams

Internal Team

If you are working in a large team or an organization, you already have a large pool of people to tap into. If you do choose to recruit within internal teams, always remember to make sure that your research is permissible within company boundaries.

Here’s a template you can use for recruiting research users from your internal teams:

  1. Greeting
  2. Give context to the project (what you’re doing, what you need, how long it will take them)
  3. Give praise and tell them that their opinion and thoughts are respected and would be very valuable to your work
  4. Request help with the project

Make sure to use a catchy subject line in the email. For example, your email may look like this:

Subject: I have something for you!

Hi Jane,
I hope your week is going well. I’m currently working on XYZ for Project A. It’s a brand new system for this incredible app I’m working on for John Smith.

As someone incredibly skilled with all things tech, I would love to get your expert opinion on this aspect of the project. This project is for something I’ve been testing for a while and having you as a research participant would be incredibly valuable.

It would only take around 5 minutes of your time (plus, it’s kind of fun!), and at the end of the research, you’ll get a $20 Amazon voucher as a thank you gift.

You can also reach out directly on Slack or any corporate instant messaging platform. It’s essential to keep in mind that some people may not have the capacity to help you out, so if someone politely declines, just thank them for their time and keep searching for other participants.

Sales/customer support teams

Most organizations have an onboarding process where new employees spend some time working with the support teams to help immerse them in the customer feedback experience. This means monitoring, answering, and assessing what real customers are saying about their experience.

This immersion and opportunity are seriously underrated as a way to garner insights. As UX writer Taylor Palmer points out, “they usually spend more time than anyone talking to customers, and most can effortlessly surface customer pains and feature requests.”

The support teams are on the front lines receiving user research and feedback, so organizing catch-ups with the support teams or opening up a Slack channel that includes both product and support teams can easily help you collect data. Not only does this create a collaborative space in the workspace, but it also helps to manage high-priority tickets from customers.

Turn power-users into beta-users

At HiPages (ASX: HPG), a listed company in Australia where Mizko of the Designership led product design, they formed a small group of beta users that were “power users” on the platform. Whenever there was a new feature in the works, they would bring the power users into the process to test ideas and garner insights.

This method was a great way to improve customer relations, with the added benefit of speaking with real customers who were invested in improving the user experience. Because of this, as with all research, these users come with their own personal preferences and thoughts on projects. Power users are huge fans of the product, and rose-tinted glasses in research can lead to opinions based on unconscious bias.  

Be your own user research participant

It’s a common misconception that designers are not users. This could not be further from the truth. As a designer, it’s our job to be the user too. If you’re short on time or struggling to find the right participants, you can take on the role of research participant yourself.

One of the leading skills that separate a good designer from a brilliant one is having empathy. Empathy ranks as the number one core soft skill to have as a designer. By immersing yourself completely in a problem that you’re trying to solve, you gain a deeper understanding and can provide a more well-rounded solution that speaks to every pain point.

For example, I am leading the re-design of a crypto exchange that just raised $40M USD and have personally put in $2,000 to buy their own exchange token. I did this because I wanted to experience their product first-hand.

Here are some products I have led strategy and design for and have personally immersed myself in:

  • HiPages: Booked my own tradespeople to renovate my carpet and my own home
  • Snappr: Booked one of my team’s company photoshoots through the platform
  • HeyYou: Ordered a year’s worth of coffee and picked it up with the app

Finding effective and valuable user research participants is the key to a good design strategy, but by becoming a user yourself, you can see the problem with a new lens.

How to incentivize your participants

With user research, it’s always the carrot, not the stick. By providing your research participants with incentives, you’re not only encouraging their participation but also showing gratitude for their time. This is how to offer value in return to get the data you need.

  1. The incentivisation process should be traceable and trackable. Avoid giving cash. Instead, say thank you with gift cards so you can expense it under the business.
  2. If using gift cards, send via email to track and record redemption. For example, Amazon, Netflix, and Apple Gift Cards.
  3. As a polite finisher, send a follow-up email to each participant thanking them for their time. Most gift card services don’t allow you to attach the card to an email, so make sure to mention that the gift card will arrive separately.

Think outside the box for other ways your participants might benefit from the research. Can you provide them with a discount code or an invitation to upcoming promotions? Early access to your service or product is always appreciated as well.

How to find effective user research participants

Finding user research participants doesn’t need to cost a fortune or take up hours of your time. It’s as simple as finding the right target audience, leveraging existing networks, and leading an invitation with value. A good designer also puts themselves into the shoes of the user to solve problems.

As someone who has experienced every angle of the design world, from user to designer to UX/UI design instructor, I can say with complete confidence that user research is one of the most valuable tools in your UX arsenal to create a game-changer.

UX Designer, Educator, Investor & Advisor
Hello, I'm Michael Wong or better known as Mizko. I went from designer → agency owner → now founder and educator at Designership. I teach the skills and tricks that helped me build a multi-million dollar design agency, serving 50+ companies and impacting millions worldwide!
Michael W.
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