How to recruit hard-to-find participants

21st August 2017
Posted by in Brain Feasts: Longer Reads

With over 17 years experience in recruiting participants, we know that finding and the right people for your research sessions is essential for obtaining meaningful, reliable and representative results.

For most interactive systems (websites, apps, systems and software) it’s relatively easy to find participants to invite along to take part in a research session. However, there are some user groups that tend to be more difficult to recruit from than others and this is mainly due to potential participants having limited time available and/or are in highly paid roles and cannot be incentivised by a cash payment.

Some users that may be difficult to recruit:

  • Users within the medical field, usually on high salaries and have limited free time such as: Surgeons, Doctors, Dentists, Vets etc.
  • Users within the legal industry, again on high salaries and short on free time such as: Judges, Barristers, Lawyers etc.
  • Highly skilled and specifically qualified tradesmen such as Engineers/ Plumbers and Electricians for whom, time really is money!
  • Users who are high up in their fields/organisations on some of the highest salaries, for example very busy professionals e.g. CEO’S / CFO’s/ CIO types

What you need to consider:

Using your own resources: Potentially the easiest and cheapest way to recruit participants is through using your own resources. You can do this by using contacts from your own customer database, providing a link on your website inviting people to apply to take part or by recruiting people who have recently contacted your customer service/support team who have agreed to be contacted by your company.

Remote research sessions: Adapting the research method from, for example, face to face testing to a remote session can dramatically increase the number of participants who apply to take part in your research as the effort for users to take part is reduced as they do not need to spend time, money and effort getting to you; instead they can take part from the comfort of their own home or place of work.

Evening testing: If you need users who are employed full time, getting them to attend testing sessions during working hours might prove difficult. The alternative is to schedule early morning or evening sessions. This recently worked well when we were looking to recruit CEO’s / CFO’s and CIO users who we found to be much more receptive to take part in a session at 07:30 in the morning! A potential downside to this type of recruitment is that the total number of sessions that you can conduct within a day is likely to be reduced.

Conducting the research in real world locations: Again, making the effort to go to the participants rather than them coming to you increases your chances of filling your sessions. If you can conduct your research in locations where your ideal user groups would typically be found, e.g. in a hospital cafeteria if you are wanting to recruit doctors, or at a hardware store if you are wanting to recruit tradesmen. The potential downside of this type of recruitment is that the sessions are likely to be shorter (20 mins max) as you are catching people on the fly, as they’re going about their everyday lives.

Recommending a colleague/friend scheme: Asking for help from people who have already taken part in a research session for you are ideal candidates for this scheme as they already know you are offering a genuine opportunity. You can offer the recommender an incentive for providing you with the details of a suitable participant, if that person then takes part in a study. We used this tactic recently when recruiting tradesmen who are used to providing recommendations and sharing contacts within the industry.

Incentivising them with more than just money: For high flying, highly skilled individuals, for whom money is no object, offering them a money-can’t-buy incentive is the key to getting them involved. In some professions (such as a Court Judge) they are not allowed to be seen to receive incentives and so you actually can’t pay them for their time. This is also sometimes the case when participants are taking part in research within work time. Instead you can suggest that their incentive for taking part in a research session takes the form of a donation to a charity of their choice. Alternatively, you could offer a knowledge transfer for their time, for example agreeing that at the end of the research they will receive a summary of the insights gathered. Other ideas might be to offer participants exclusive access to the client’s products or services, e.g. a ticket to a sold out event, free attendance on a course or workshop they’re running etc.

Last resort, consider using surrogate participants:

If you are really struggling to recruit a certain types of users, then you could consider recruiting surrogate participants instead.

Surrogate participants are people who are unlikely to actually use the interactive system you are wanting to test, but who have similar domain knowledge and characteristics to the target users.

A usability test with people who aren’t real users of the system may seem absurd. You could argue that surrogates may experience problems that won’t affect real users (giving false positives) and genuine users may encounter difficulties that, for one reason or another, don’t bother surrogates (giving false negatives). However, if it’s a choice between using surrogate participants or not conducting the usability test at all? Then we would recommend conducting the testing with surrogates’ whist being wary of the potential false positives/negatives that may be evident within the findings.

Some examples of surrogate participants that you could consider:

  • Recently retired professionals: Recently retired professionals who used to do the same job as those that that you are trying to recruit will have similar domain knowledge and lots of experience within the sector. However, you need to be aware of how long they have been out of the industry and how quickly the industry changes to ensure their knowledge is still applicable and relevant.
  • Co-workers of busy professionals: People who work alongside or assist busy, highly paid individuals can sometimes be the next best thing as they can provide useful insights into the lives of their co-workers and sometimes will also use the system (to some degree), for example, a paediatric nurse in place of a consultant.
  • Students and teachers in the field: Students and teachers who will be familiar with the common concepts and the terminology used in their profession. For example, a trainee barrister may serve as a good surrogate for your fully qualified barrister and a medical student may serve as a good substitute for a doctor.

Struggling to recruit participants for your study?

Bunnyfield can help, with almost guaranteed ‘bums on seats’ (and not just any bums, the right ones) they have an amazing track record of <0.1% no show rate!

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About Bunnyfoot

We are psychologists, interaction and design experts, researchers, usability specialists. We cover Web, software, mobile, print, service design and more.
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