GV Library Design

How to find great participants for your user study

Photo by Karen Blakeman

“It’s too hard to find users for usability tests.” Startups often point to recruiting users as one of the biggest reasons they’re not regularly talking to their users. The process can seem mysterious and time-consuming; just a big hassle. But it’s actually pretty simple and straightforward when you know how. Follow the steps below and you’ll soon have people to give you the feedback you need to improve your product, reduce risk, and save you time in the long run.

Don’t wait

As soon as you have some idea of what you want to test, start recruiting. It takes a little lead time, so start even before your design is finalized. For help diagnosing what kind of sessions and users you’re going to need, see Questions to ask before starting user research.

Be selective

Define and select the testers you want — and screen out the ones you don’t want. You’ll get better results and avoid wasting time. Getting feedback from your friends and family is better than nothing, but you’ll quickly see that the frank feedback from “real” users will be quite eye-opening. Since I often interview as few as six people for a study, I want to get the most out of every session.

For example, when I tested designs for Gmail’s Priority Inbox, I needed feedback from active Gmail users who received a lot of mail. If I learned too late that any of my small sample of testers received very few emails, or worked for competitors, or didn’t use Gmail’s web UI, those sessions would have been a bust. When evaluating a product’s out-of-box experience, I recruit people from the target audience who haven’t used it before.

Step 1: Write a screener

To find the people I want to test my product (and filter out the people I don’t), I write a short screener questionnaire like this example screener for an email study in Google Docs. To draft your own screener, start by filling out this screener worksheet.

Define your criteria

With your team, list the characteristics of the target users for your usability study. Then figure out precise criteria you can use to identify those users. For example, when my team wanted to test designs with “active Gmail users,” I translated that into precise, measurable criteria I could use to screen prospective participants: use Gmail as primary personal email account and receive at least three emails per day.

In addition to specifying the users you want to talk to, brainstorm characters you don’t want to see in any of your precious sessions. I commonly exclude folks who are under 18 years old, work for competitors, or are unusually technical, including engineers, designers, and product managers. For my Gmail Priority Inbox study, I excluded people who shared their email accounts, had used Gmail for less than six months, or viewed their email through a mobile or other non-Gmail UI.

Write screener questions

Next, write a screener questionnaire that you can use to identify and select people who meet each of your precise criteria. Write questions for every one of your criteria. Like any good survey or questionnaire, it’s important to write questions that aren’t leading and don’t reveal the “right” answers. Many people will try to give the answers they think you want so they can get your $50 incentive. For example, rather than asking whether people receive 3 emails/day and use Gmail as their primary accounts, I asked: How many emails did you receive yesterday? What email service or application do you use for your primary personal email account?

After you’ve completed the screener worksheet and drafted questions for all of your criteria, create your screener questionnaire form. Google Forms is a great tool for creating screeners and collecting the responses in a spreadsheet.

Step 2: Get people to fill out your screener

After you’ve drafted your screener, you need to get lots of people to fill it out to find enough who meet your criteria. You can hire a recruiting vendor or do it yourself.

Hire a recruiting vendor

Recruiting vendors can send your screener to their lists of potential testers, sift through the responses, schedule appropriate testers, and manage their compensation for you. You might pay them $100 or more for each participant (depending on your recruiting criteria) — and that doesn’t include the incentive.

The main advantage of working with a vendor is that it can save you a lots of time. It can also make it easier to plan blind tests when you don’t want to reveal who’s running the study. You do give up some control of the process and your relationship with the respondents since those contacts are typically owned by the vendor.


A less expensive approach is recruiting research candidates yourself. It may take more of your time, but you can often complete the whole process faster yourself than a vendor can. Last week I recruited eight people for phone interviews in less than two days.

Long term, a DIY approach is probably a good investment as you build up your own database of potential testers. I’ve also found that I’ve learned a ton from users just from all of my tiny email and phone interactions with them when asking clarifying questions, scheduling them, etc.

You can distribute the link to your screener lots of ways. Posting it to places like Craigslist, Twitter, and Facebook are most obvious. I also recommend adding a small “Want to give us more feedback?” link to your product, site, and company emails. (Just beware of CAN-SPAM guidelines.)

When trying to recruit very specific and less common types of users, I’ve also found contacts in appropriate professional associations, community groups, student groups, or in my personal network who can help distribute links to my screeners. For example, if you want to talk to restaurant managers, ask the membership director at your local restaurant association to send out a link to your screener.

Step 3: Schedule and confirm testers

As the responses to my screener come in, I review them and select the people that seem like good candidates. (Don’t forget to recruit one or two extras in case of inevitable “no shows.”) To my chosen few, I (or my recruiting vendor) send brief emails to confirm the time, date, and location of the session. I also like to include:

  • Any instructions that will increase odds people will arrive on time, such as directions, parking info, the nearest transit stop, and what to do when they arrive.
  • My phone number in case they have questions or need to reschedule.
  • A copy of my non-disclosure agreement (which covers confidentiality, as well as permission to record, and protects ownership of ideas).

To minimize frustrating “no shows,” you can also ask users to reply to confirm. For example, your subject line might be something like: Reply to Confirm — Usability session scheduled on February 29 at 1 pm. A reminder phone call one day before the session can also save you disappointment.

By investing a little effort to recruit the right people, you’ll get higher-quality feedback in a more time-efficient way. The whole process gets easier with practice — especially when you can just re-use your previous screener and email templates. After scheduling a batch of testers, you can focus on the fun part — talking to users!

What other tips and tricks have you learned to streamline the recruiting process?