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Learn how to find, communicate with and incentivise participants. Works for user interviews, testing sessions and codesign activities. Explains how to find the right participants and manage their personal data.

This resource is for:

  • People in small charities who are starting user research and are unsure where to begin.
  • Anyone wanting to understand what is involved in participant recruitment

It covers:

  • Where to find user research participants
  • Communicating with participants
  • Incentivising participants

By the end of this guide, you will understand how to get started with user research recruitment. You will also have practical ideas to help along the way.

Why carry out user research?

User research can help small charities learn what the people they serve need. By carrying out user research, charities can find: 

  1. Where they can improve
  2. How they can make their services better
  3. Come up with new ideas to help more people 

User research also helps build trust and strong connections. It helps small charities use their money and resources efficiently and stay strong in a competitive environment.

User research can help with:

  • a new product or service you are developing
  • improving a well established product or service.

It does this by giving you the insights you need from the people who use your services and products. 

Following a process makes recruitment easier

Recruiting participants for user research can seem like a daunting prospect. This resource will take you through some simple steps you can put in place to help you recruit the right people to inform your design decisions. 

To bring this resource to life, we will use the example of a small charity who were aiming to help people claiming Universal Credit for the first time. They have an idea for creating a smartphone app, but are unsure how helpful it would be.

The flowchart shows the recruitment process we will cover.

When you have an idea for a new or improved product or service you then need to decide who you want to speak to and what incentive you can offer them.Then you need to write your screening survey and consent form.Then advertise the research opportunityThen sift respondents to create a pool of participantsThen schedule sessions with participantsYou need to follow your GDPR policy and give each participant and identifierYou need to send out reminders.After completing the research sessions, you need to send your participants the incentive to say thank you.
Flowchart for the recruitment process explained in this guide.

Decide who to research

Once you have decided what you want to research, you then need to decide who you want to talk to. If you are improving an existing service or product, you will want to test this with existing users. If you are developing a new product or service you may want to carry out research with a wider group of people who don’t currently use your services.

In our example, we were looking for participants: 

  1. Who had applied for Universal Credit recently - so that they can tell us about their experiences
  2. Who had helped others who were applying for Universal Credit recently - so they can identify common barriers.

We also needed to ensure that participants had access to a smartphone with access to the internet. 

In addition to these criteria it is good practice to try and recruit a diverse group of participants. You should consider:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Disability
  • Socio-economic status 
  • Digital literacy

Where to find participants

Put yourself in the shoes of the potential participants that you want to recruit. Where are you likely to find them? Think about places both online and offline. In our example, we looked for Facebook groups for people supporting Universal Credit claimants. You are likely to also have your own contacts through your clients and other organisations.

Some good places for recruitment adverts include: 

  • your organisation’s newsletter 
  • social media pages. 
  • email lists
  • partner organisations newsletters and social media 
  • posters in local libraries and cafes (when location specific)
  • meetings or group sessions.

Recruiting from a variety of places and using a variety of approaches will help reduce bias in the recruitment process.

In your advert you should tell people: 

  1. What you are researching
  2. Who you are looking for 
  3. Details of any incentive you are offering. This will make a difference to how many people apply to take part.

Decide what you need to know about your participants

The specific details of what you need to ask respondents depends on what you are trying to find out. However, the usual way to do it is by sending out a combined screening survey and consent form. Based on this, we can invite some or all the respondents to become participants in our user research. 

Set up a screening survey

Your advert should direct people towards a screening survey. Here you can ask questions that will make sure you recruit relevant participants. You should ask clear, unambiguous questions. In our example, the questions included:

  • Have you claimed Universal Credit for yourself in the last six months?
  • Have you helped someone claim Universal Credit in the last six months
  • Do you have a smartphone?

Fewer questions usually means more completed responses. Along with contact details, it’s a good idea to collect demographic information. This helps guarantee that you are including a diverse range of people in your research. You can track information such as age, ethnicity, location, gender to check that you are hearing back from a range of people.

Include a consent form with your survey

This form explains what the research is for and what will happen to people's data. It also informs them that they can withdraw consent at any time. You can use an example consent form from CAST.

The screening survey and consent form can be on paper or online. There are many free online forms. Both Google and Microsoft offer free forms tools, and there are many other options.  Online forms have an advantage as all data is stored and can be viewed together. (Note: When you collect and store personal data you should carry this out in accordance with your organisation’s GDPR policy - see below.)

Digital forms can exclude certain potential participants. For example, those with limited access to digital devices and those with low digital literacy. You may need to think of different ways of recruitment to create the diverse pool you are looking for. 

If you are looking for a very specific group of people then recruitment agencies can be a good idea. Recruitment agencies take a fee per participant, but they often have a huge number of people to choose from and can save you a lot of time. People for Research and Gusto Research are good places to start. There are many others. Find them through a simple online search. Try searching “User research participant recruitment agencies”. It is a good idea to get a quote from at least three agencies as costs can vary. 

How to make sure you have the right participants

Next, sift applicants by your research criteria. This is particularly important if your budget is small. 

In our example, we wanted to select people who said yes to applying for Universal Credit or said yes to helping someone apply for Universal Credit. In both cases, we also wanted those people who said yes to owning a smartphone.

For those who don’t fit the criteria, you may decide to let them know that you haven’t selected them this time. You could do this with a short email, text or phone call.

What to tell your chosen participants

When you have your pool of people that meet your criteria, you will need to contact them with information about the research sessions. 

Participants should have enough information about the session to make an informed choice about taking part. This information should include:

  • What the session is about
  • A brief description of the session
  • How you will use this research 
  • When and where the sessions are taking place 
  • What you will do with their data and how you will keep their data anonymous
  • What incentive is being offered for taking part.

Once they have selected a session to attend, confirm the date and time of the research session with each participant. You could do this by email, text message or phone call. It is also a good idea to send out a reminder the day before to prevent people forgetting or dropping out at the last minute.

If you are recruiting online, an online scheduling tool can save time here. Calendly and Doodle both have free options but there are many available. 

Limit the number of people you talk to

There are no hard-and-fast rules about how many people you should talk to in your research interviews. 

If you are testing a prototype, five people can be enough to find 85% of the problems. After that, additional participants give you fewer, significant insights. If you are carrying out qualitative interviews then you may want to recruit some more - for example 6-8 participants. 

If you reach the point where you are hearing the same problems and comments, adding more participants is unlikely to give you any further insights. 

You should expect dropouts and cancellations, as people can lead busy or chaotic lives. To plan for this, it is usual to recruit two or more participants than you actually need.

How much time to give to recruitment

A common turnaround time from the beginning of the recruitment process to starting user interviews is 2-3 weeks. This may take a little longer if you are using an external agency to recruit for you.

Even recruiting a small cohort of people for one round of research can be a lot of admin. All the tasks mentioned so far can take an hour or so per participant.

Incentivise taking part

Offering an incentive to participants usually results in a more diverse and representative group of participants. By offering an incentive you are letting people know that their time and opinions are valuable. 

You can decide how to reward people for their time and insights. Catalyst pay people £30 for a half hour research session but the amount you offer is up to you.

If you run your research sessions in person you should try to reimburse people for their travel expenses. In person research takes more time out of someone’s day so you may also need to consider a higher incentive.

Alternatives to a monetary incentive:

  • Discount - if you run a paid for service, you could offer participants a discount or free service as remuneration.
  • Voucher - you could offer participants a voucher that gives the participant a choice of spending locations. You can often send these electronically and order them in batches.
  • Charitable donation - consider offering participants the ability to donate to a charitable cause.

In our example, we sent every participant a £30 multi-use shopping voucher. This covered a wide range of shops including supermarkets.

Managing people’s information and data

When carrying out research you will be dealing with people’s personal data. This is data such as name and contact details. This includes everyone who applied to take part in your research, not only those you selected. It is important that you follow your charity’s GDPR policy around handling and storing people’s data.

Only the researchers that need to know should have access to your participants' data. Online forms and spreadsheet tools can be password enabled. If the data is on paper you should keep these in a locked cupboard or room. 

It is helpful to give each participant an identifier. This is a number or name that you can refer to when you report on and discuss the data. For example, you could give the first participant the identifier P1, the next P2 etc. 

A table showing the participant number. Example of a participant number is P1. The table shows the associated first name, surname, gender and telephone number of that participant.The table is created in a way to show that it continues beyond what is displayed.

Only keep this personal data for as long as your GDPR policy dictates. Make a reminder in your diary for the date at which you need to delete or destroy this data.


This resource should have given you the main starting points when beginning user research in your organisation. Catalyst have also provided further resources to guide you on:

Planning your user research sessions.

Writing your interview questions.

Alternatively, read about how Compassion in Dying find research participants and get consent using web tools.


Image credit: Julie Kertesz on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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