Recruiting the Right Users: 4 Tips for Success

Over the years I have run dozens of UX research studies with hundreds of participants both in-person and remotely. Profiles have ranged from consumer electronics users, to field-service workers, to IT administrators and networking professionals, to business decision makers, to users of sophisticated analytics software, to engineers, to graphic design artists (just to name a few).

Finding the right participants can make or break a study, but it’s not uncommon for researchers to treat the recruiting process (that vitally important exercise to ensure you get to talk to the right people) as an afterthought. Some not-so-great practices that I’ve encountered include:

  • Borrowing a screener from a colleague and blindly using it, without thinking about why particular screening questions were included and if they make sense for the current study
  • Over-defining the participants so much that they are impossible to find
  • Not spending time to hand-off the screener and explain the intent of the study to the recruitment team, hoping for the best (“throwing it over the fence”)
  • Expecting dozens of people with specific domain knowledge to be recruited within only a few days

Here are 4 pieces of advice that can help make your recruitment successful, especially for those really hard to find participants.

1) Help the recruiter understand the spirit of your screener.

It really helps the recruiter to know the basic type of person that they are looking for (and who to avoid) and why you want to talk to that profile. We all know that even the best written screener can sometimes have gaps or gray areas that aren’t caught until the recruiter starts screening candidates. Without a basic understanding of your goals it will be difficult for them to effectively evaluate a potential recruit “on the fly”. If something feels off ? maybe the participant fits on paper, but they just don’t seem quite right ? the recruiter can only make a good judgment call if they understand why they are recruiting for this particular set of characteristics. For example, if a potential candidate for a laptop study says in passing that they “don’t really care how their laptop looks as long as the specs are right”, then it is helpful for the recruiter to understand if a goal of the study is to get laptop design-related feedback. Even if the candidate otherwise fits the profile, they can be put on hold until the recruiter discusses with the researcher if they are appropriate for the study.

Let the recruiter know who the ideal recruit is and why you want them over alternatives. Being up front with recruiters about the core characteristics that really define the target profile will help ensure you get the best possible matches to your customer base.

2) Well-thought-out, concise, targeted screeners are easier to fill with quality participants.

Keep in mind that screener fatigue is real, just the same as it is for long online surveys. Potential participants run out of time and patience for the screening process. Put yourself in the respondent’s shoes. Would you sit through a phone call covering all of these questions? And how would you feel if you did only to be told you aren’t a fit for the study?

Tip: front-load the screener with the most critical screening questions so that candidates that won’t be a good fit are identified quickly and the recruiter can stop the call.

A common pitfall that contributes to screener bloat is to try to collect informational details through the screening process. Ask yourself ? does this question matter for recruitment purposes or is it just something we want to know about the individual? If it is a defining characteristic of the end user, then keep it. If it is informational, move it into the session; if it really impacts discussion you’ll want to ask it in-person anyway.

Make your screener as short as possible while still getting who you need. Go through it, question by question, and justify to yourself why you need characteristics X, Y, and Z. If it is not essential to the profile or the study, omit it.

3) Remember that recruiters are not experts in your domain and might need a little help.

Good recruiters are able to adapt to new profiles, but won’t immediately be domain experts. Be willing to train them for what to listen for. Help them by defining unfamiliar terms (this can often benefit the respondent too!) and give them examples of reasonable responses. This can help them avoid false positives ? participants who seem right to the untrained person, but ultimately do not fit the profile.

As much as you can, design questions with concrete answers that the recruiter can record with confidence, knowing that if the respondent replies in a certain way that they fit what you are looking for.

“Consider asking an open-ended question for difficult profiles that require specific domain knowledge.”

We have all probably experienced a candidate that either knowingly or unknowingly misled a recruiter about their expertise. There are two good ways to try to reduce such occurrences. The first is to make a note in the screener for the recruiter to listen for responses to particular questions rather than reading off the list of possible options. A second way is to consider asking an open-ended question for difficult profiles that require specific domain knowledge. Recruiters can listen to how comfortable a respondent is in talking about their domain and notice if they’re struggling through their response. Even if the recruiter doesn’t fully understand every detail, they can often make accurate judgment calls as to whether the respondent is an expert or is full of hot air. They can also take notes during those conversations and share them with the researcher who can make a final judgment call on how well the person fits.

4) Turn-around time makes a big difference in the quality of your recruits.

It is important to be realistic with how long it will take to fill a recruit, but researchers sometimes neglect to plan enough time into their research schedule. Insufficient lead time means a lot more concessions will have to be made to get people in the seats. If the study is in 3 days, then the recruiter will likely have to ask for a lot of leniency on the requirements to find candidates that are maybe “close” but not “perfect” and available on such short notice.

Recruiters can be picky for you… if there is enough lead time.

If the study has sufficient lead time, though, then recruiters have the “luxury” of playing a little bit of phone tag with a candidate that might be a perfect match or digging a little deeper in the database for someone that may not look like a perfect match but is worth phone screening to learn more about. They can spend the time required to find individuals with more of the experience and knowledge that you are looking for; essentially, they can be picky for you.

Keep in mind that recruiters might also have to go outside their databases to find enough of the right people. Our recruiters often have to network via professional organizations and social media or use snowballing techniques to expand their respondent pool, particularly when they are looking for a complex or unique profile. If your recruit is targeting individuals that are unlikely to be found in a recruiting database, then make sure to allow for this additional time-consuming finding-and-vetting process.


The recruiters we work with are seasoned professionals who seem to be able to work magic, but keeping the above tips in mind will make the entire process easier not just for them, but for you as well. Recruiters who understand the who and why of your research, who have precise screeners that carefully define the end user, who have enough lead time, and who have your support in understanding the domain are set up to succeed. The resulting quality recruitment will, in turn, help your study succeed.