Explore the state of UX research recruiting in 2023, where companies rely on panels, agencies, and other methods to find the right participants. Learn about common user recruiting practices, the importance of quotas, and how to use screeners for finding ideal candidates.
The Reality of UX Research Recruiting in 2023
Most companies use panels and agencies for user research—i.e., other people's audiences. The primary reason for this strategy is that most organizations don't have a dedicated ResearchOps department, and it's cheap and easy to find participants using public databases.
Here is a rough breakdown of research recruiting sources based on industry experience and speaking to some of the world's biggest tech companies.
User Research Studies
Here are some common user studies researchers recruit participants for:
User interviews: One-on-one interviews to learn about users' experiences, behaviors, problems, etc.
Automated / Self-Moderated - usertesting.com
Focus groups: Group interviews/discussions about users' thoughts and opinions.
Surveys: A quantitative research method gathering feedback from large groups quickly.
Usability testing: Observing users as they interact with a digital product to identify issues and opportunities.
Field studies: Observing users in their environment to learn about their behaviors, problems, workflows, habits, etc.
Diary studies: Users keep a diary or journal about a product or experience over a specific period.
Card sorting: Users sort or categorize information according to given criteria so researchers can learn about hierarchy, prioritization, content relationships, etc.
User Research Recruiting Methods
There are many ways to find UX research participants. Here are some common recruiting methods UX researchers use.
Ethnio lets us intercept real users doing real activities on our website and app, in a way that feels natural to them, and well-integrated to our brand and visuals.Guillermo ErmelUser Research Lead, Mercado Libre
Intercept recruiting interrupts (or intercepts) users and customers using a specific product, feature, or service. These are the most valuable participants for UX research because they actively use your product, giving you the most reliable feedback.
UX researchers typically use popups or modals to present users with an offer to participate in a study, including any incentive. If the user accepts, they're redirected to a screener to qualify them for the study.
Another benefit of using intercepts for participant recruiting is that researchers can connect with users within minutes of them using a specific feature—vital for accurate feedback when the experience is still fresh in someone's mind.
Adding intercepts to websites and products requires some engineering access, which can be tricky but worth the effort if you're looking for high-quality participants who actually use your products.
The easiest way to find relevant participants is in your company's internal email lists and databases. These are people familiar with your brand and likely using your product or service.
Many panel management platforms have large databases, which they sell for studies. Researchers can apply filters to find participants that fit study criteria, including demographics, interests, and behaviors.
While using participants from these databases is quick, cheap, and convenient, there are some downsides to note:
These generic participants often don't or will never use your product, which begs the question of relevance and reliability.
The panel management platform has sold and resold these participants multiple times, including to competitors.
Panel management databases are notoriously unreliable, with "professional participants" who create numerous fake profiles to earn payouts from as many studies as possible.
We use Ethnio when we need to talk to people that a recruitment agency wouldn't be able to find—other methods just don't cut it! ✂️Lynsey ThorntonVP of UX, Shopify
Social media posts
Social media is another easy way to find participants, but you might have some internal bureaucracy and politics to work through to get authorization. A post on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Reddit are cost-effective methods for advertising your study to potential participants
Paid ads and partnerships
This is much easier to do, but can involve budget.
Newsletter - You can also reach out to organizations with large mailing lists in your niche. Many of these newsletter-style mailing lists offer sponsored placements for you to advertise. You can start by scanning Duuce and Newsletters, which allow you to search their newsletter databases.
There's an online community for every niche. You can use these platforms to recruit participants interested in a specific topic relevant to your study. Facebook Groups, Subreddits, LinkedIn Groups, and other social media communities are also fantastic places to find relevant audiences.
Referrals - AKA Snow Ball Recruiting
Referrals are another cost-effective way to find new participants with minimal effort. You can incentivize your current database to refer friends and family for studies. This strategy also exposes your brand to new users and potential paying customers.
Understanding Quotas for UX recruiting
Quotas are a vital part of UX research. These quotas ensure study participants are representative of the entire user population based on specific demographics, characteristics, beliefs, behaviors, and other segments—for example, age, race, gender, nationality, language, salary, etc.
User research quotas sound straightforward but can be complicated and time-consuming to manage. Research operations teams and UX researchers use various methods to track quotas, often using the infamous color-coded spreadsheet.
How to apply quotas to UX research
Identify the target audience: Determine the characteristics of your target audience for the study. You may want to include users by demographics, behavior, or what plan/service/feature they use.
Define quotas: Define the quotas for each characteristic you want to include—for example, you may segment users into four age groups with a quota of five people in each.
Screen & segment: UX researchers use screener questionnaires to ask users about specific characteristics and segment accordingly until they fill each quota.
An example of research quotas
Let's say you're designing an app that helps reduce household energy consumption. UX researchers might create the following quotas to learn about a diverse set of users:
People who work from home
People who work in an office
These sample groups will have different consumption habits and challenges. UX researchers segment these groups into quotas representative of the larger population to get a broad understanding of the entire group's energy needs.
Researchers use a spreadsheet (like the one above) to track each quota until they meet the study's requirements.
Say Goodbye to Spreadsheets: Quota Management Reimagined
Color-coded spreadsheets are the standard way to track research quotas. The trouble with spreadsheet tracking is that it is time-consuming to manage and expose user information—increasing the likelihood of data breaches.
Ethnio has reimagined quota management with an intuitive user interface that enables researchers to hide user data and fill quotas using powerful automation.
With Ethnio's Screeners, UX researchers can recruit and segment participants using advanced, customizable qualifying logic to create multiple hard and soft quotas. Additionally, they can customize quotas using emoji shortcuts and color for easy visualization and monitoring.
Ethnio transforms quotas from this:
To this—an intuitive UI driven by powerful automation allowing researchers and stakeholders to visualize quotas instantly.
Ethnio automatically fills quotas based on qualifying logic and screener responses, saving countless hours of manual quota management. Additionally, you can review each quota and invite stakeholders to approve or decline participants.
Increase Participation With Incentives for Participant Recruiting
Incentives encourage participation in UX research studies. It's essential to understand what your audience values when choosing an incentive. For example, some people might prefer cash, while others will be happy to participate knowing their payout goes to charity.
Here are some tips for using incentives for participant recruiting:
Determine your budget: Discuss your incentive budget with stakeholders to determine what you can pay each participant.
Know your audience: What will motivate the right participants to participate in your study? Will they prefer cash, vouchers, product, or a donation to charity?
Offer variety: Giving participants a choice is an excellent strategy to encourage people with varying preferences to join your study.
Communicate incentives clearly: Be transparent about incentive payouts and the Ts & Cs for receiving them. Transparency is vital for managing expectations and preventing any misunderstandings.
Make it easy: Ensure you fulfill payouts promptly, and make it easy for participants to get paid. Slow payouts or complex payment procedures can frustrate people and damage your brand's reputation.
Understand tax implications: Many countries, including the US, require institutions to file tax forms for persons who receive more than a certain amount in a calendar year—$600 per annum in the United States.
Ethnio is one of the few panel management tools with native Incentives, meaning you have complete control over user privacy, and won't incur additional fees or admin from third parties.
With Ethnio's Incentives, researchers can payout in any currency to participants worldwide. Ethnio offers hundreds of payment methods, including global bank transfers, retail/brand vouchers, PayPal, virtual debit cards, and donations to 40+ charities.
UX teams can manage Incentives from a central dashboard, including payout tracking, setting annual tax limits, and designating team member permissions.
The Power of Detailed Screeners: Finding Your Ideal Research Participants
Putting a qualifying question early e.g. "Do you currently own Sonos products?" makes sure that we're not wasting anyone's time 🕒 or our time with unqualified responses.Jill DavidsonUser Researcher, SonosScreeners are landing page questionnaires that enable researchers to gather data and qualify participants for a UX study. Researchers use various mediums to send screeners, including social media posts, ads, and email.
The purpose of a screener is to narrow your submissions to participants relevant to your study based on their responses. For example, you may only want to consider students between 18-24 who live in the United States and spend more than $500 per year on food delivery apps.
It's crucial to ask open-ended questions when recruiting participants, so you don't bias the study or get people guessing the correct answers to participate—which people will do when there is an incentive! For our example above, you might set up your screener as follows:
What is your current occupation status:
Country of residence:
*List of countries
How much do you send on food delivery apps annually:
Less than $100
While people might infer that the study is about food delivery, it's difficult to guess which answers will qualify them. Conversely, if you asked yes/no questions for this study, it would be easy to guess:
Are you a student?
Do you live in the United States?
Do you spend more than $500 on food delivery apps every year?
Ethnio's Screeners are fully white-label, so questionnaires are always on-brand, integrating seamlessly with your website or product. Researchers can choose from 16 question types and automatically segment audiences using qualifying, drill-down, and page logic. They can use screeners to recruit participants or conduct simple surveys for instant product feedback. Ethnio automatically enriches participant profiles in Pool (CRM) based on screener responses and interactions.
UX Research vs. Research Operations Participant Recruiting
An organization's size and UX department structure are crucial in how teams recruit participants.
The Research Ops method
The UX research method
In organizations without ResOps, it's usually up to one of the following team members to conduct user research:
These people generally have more important tasks demanding their attention and want to recruit users as quickly as possible. This group prefers using public panels or outsourcing to agencies.