Finding Participants for User Experience Studies

Sep 8, 2014
One figure in a long line of stick figures is highlighted in gold.

How do you find participants for your usability studies?

I spoke recently with the User Experience Community of Practice about how we recruit participants for usability and cognitive studies at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Hopefully I can give you some new ideas about recruiting volunteers to fuel your user research.

At BLS, we need different types of participants for different studies. Very often, we are looking for members of the general public. To find these participants, we have placed ads in newspapers and online ad services. Also, people who have enjoyed their experience with BLS studies have referred friends to us. Our list is now large enough that we can usually recruit participants from the list without further advertising.

When we place ads, we find it is helpful to have a separate email account or phone number, so the recruiter’s individual account doesn’t fill up with responses. Also, we screen participants carefully to be sure they meet our testing needs.

Sometimes we are looking for more specific audiences, such as disabled respondents to help us evaluate survey questions on disability, or people switching careers who might use the information we have in our Occupational Outlook Handbook. In those cases, we might ask organizations that provide services for these groups to help us find participants.

We also sometimes conduct studies with respondents to our business surveys. To find these participants, we work with the BLS office responsible for that survey. We usually need people who respond to the survey on behalf of their employer because they know the survey topic and where to find the information needed.

When we are looking for people from our participant list, a member of our staff does most of our recruiting. The researchers meet with her to share the needs of the study (both the types of participants we need and the schedule for the work). We also consider when potential participants last took part in a study so we don’t end up with “regular” participants.

Our recruiter reviews our participant list, identifies possible matches, and contacts them to see if they are interested. When the recruiter schedules participants, she makes sure they have all the information they need, including directions to our lab and any special instructions. She also reminds them about their appointments a day or two ahead of time. This personal contact has been helpful in limiting the number of no-shows.

Our studies usually last about an hour. We conduct most of our studies in our lab in Washington, D.C., but we also conduct studies in the field and remotely over the Internet. When participants come to our lab, we pay them $40 (by check); we pay participants less if they don’t have to travel. These rates are set for us by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB); the limits may be different for your agency. We do not pay participants who are respondents to our business surveys because they are participating during their workday.

This is how we recruit participants at BLS. If you have any additional suggestions about recruiting, please leave them in the comments below!

Jean E. Fox is Research Psychologist at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Co-Chair of the User Experience Community of Practice.