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This should come as no surprise, but the most essential component of conducting successful user research is identifying and selecting the right participants.

While many enterprise-level businesses have budgets that allow them to hire specialized recruiting firms, this isn’t usually the case for small- to medium-size businesses who are trying to run lean.

Because of this, we often assist our clients in finding, screening, and scheduling participants for research studies of all shapes and sizes.

Finding the right participants isn’t as easy as it sounds. It almost always takes longer than expected. But through a lot of trial and error, we’ve streamlined a DIY recruiting process that’s ready to be shared with the world – let’s dive in!

Fishing for User Research Participants

Many times, we try to recruit participants by reaching out to our personal networks. We often get tweets from our design and research friends looking for people to participate in one-on-one interviews. We’ve even done it ourselves.



Why do we do this? Because, as we said, it can be difficult to find the right people to participate in a study. Even if the research goals are simple and there’s a large number of potential participants, locating, recruiting, and screening can be tricky. That’s why we believe the process is part art and part science.

At the outset of a research project, stakeholders must make some key decisions before participant recruitment and screening begins. We’ll write more on these crucial decisions in a future post. For now, let’s assume that we’ve identified some loose screening requirements to fish out the qualified participants from the unqualified.

We’ve iterated on this process quite a bit in the past few years, but the end result is a semi-automated system that funnels potential participants through a customized screener, and then schedules each interview via magic robots.

And the great news is that you can set up a similar system that works for you! Here are the tools you’ll need to make it work: a participant list, Gmail (with Labs), Google Drive, and Acuity Scheduling.

1. Put the Participant List First

The first and most important item in your screening and recruitment toolbox is the participant list. Of course, there are many methods for creating a participant list, and just as many types of people you may want to interview.

What we’re about to describe works well when you need to talk to a client’s current customers. Pulling together a solid participant list is easily the trickiest piece of the puzzle, but we’ve found that working directly with a client’s sales team (assuming they have one) is the quickest way to identify potential participants. Sales teams already have existing relationships with their customers, and most importantly, they can make warm introductions.

Starting the Conversation
Field typically provides a loose “hand shake” script to our client’s sales reps. The reps then use the script and an outline of the research study to introduce us to the relevant customers who could participate.

The first correspondence with potential participants is a great time to use a “pre-screener” and have the sales reps gather preliminary information, such as: Name, Role, City, State, Email and Phone Number.

Make sure you indicate what preliminary information is the most important. Remember: you are putting the onus on the sales reps to gather this information, and you want consistent input. Using a shared Google Sheets file helps keep all of the information in one place.

2. Cutback Hassle for the Initial Contact

One of the helpful tools that Gmail provides is the Canned Responses feature, it’s available under Settings > Labs. Once enabled, Canned Responses allows you to craft a template email to all prospective participants without having to copy and paste over and over again.

As long as you are mindful of updating the personalized bits of the email, this is an incredibly helpful function that can save a lot of time.

Here’s an example email:


3. Streamline the Screener

We like to use the Forms tool built into Google Drive for our screeners. Screeners are used to qualify potential research participants (this is what a recruiting firm typically does).

The primary purpose of a screener is to weed out those who aren’t qualified for a study, but it also captures responses that will help build user profiles. To save time during the screening process, include any qualifiers early on in the screener. The goal is to disqualify participants early so that they don’t waste time completing forms for nothing.

The first question we always ask in a screener is if the potential participant fits the role we’re seeking. If not, then he or she is disqualified straightaway. We’re usually talking to people who fit specific roles, such as parents of children under the age of four, or elementary school music teachers. If a potential participant meets our requirements at the outset – great! If not, then he or she is disqualified early without either party wasting a ton of time.

Get More Data
Once a candidate has passed the first set of screener questions, then he or she will likely be a participant in our study. The additional questions then help inform our research team so that we can ask more pointed and relevant questions throughout the study, and this in turn allows us to deliver more life-like user profiles to the client. You can really treat the screener like a mini-study.

In terms of gathering profile information, some examples of questions that our team asks are about work experience, purchasing habits, technology usage and, of course, contact info. Just be sure to keep survey questions to a reasonable number so as not to scare away potential participants.

For remote interviews, we include a consent form within the screener. This helps minimize steps for the participant (too many steps can scare people away) and it streamlines the overall recruiting process. By including the consent form in the screener, you accomplish two things: first, you’re letting the participant know that this is a legit research study, and second, you’re weeding out those who are unwilling to agree to any “terms of participation” clauses that might be required.

Once a participant has completed and passed the screener, our form sends them to a confirmation page that includes a “Thank You” message and a direct link to our scheduling tool. This is where the magic robots come in.

Ready to recruit your research participants? Download our free Participant Screener Checklist to help the process go smoothly.

4. Accessible Scheduling with Acuity Scheduling

First, a word of warning: Acuity Scheduling is not the easiest tool to navigate on the backend. When we first began using it, we had to poke around and customize several settings. But after we got the hang of it, Acuity does streamlined scheduling very well, and that’s why we love it.

What a participant sees on their end of the Acuity Scheduling experience is a fairly easy-to-use interface. He or she can set the appropriate time zone (very important) and select from dates and times on a calendar. The last step is adding relevant contact details (name, phone number, and email address). Just a note: The contact information is required in Acuity so you may not need to gather the contact information within the screener.

You’re sent a confirmation email every time someone books a time slot, and the participant gets an email as well. The really great thing about Acuity Scheduling is that an automatic reminder email is sent to the participant 48 hours before the appointment (this is the default timing, but it can be changed).

We’ve found that this reminder really helps cut down on day-of no shows because it also gives the participant the opportunity to reschedule the interview. Trust us, this is a HUGE deal when managing the schedule during research.

5. Prove the Process

And that’s it! Once you’ve set up each component of the screening and scheduling process, you should be all set to streamline participant intake for your study. Remember: you want the experience to be seamless, so we recommend that you test your system internally and iron out any bugs before trying it with real participants.