In all of my previous experience, recruitment is usually the hardest and most painful part of the entire process because recruiting takes a lot of time, effort and can be quite expensive. However, without recruiting, you do research. There is always the possibility of paying a relatively large fee to recruitment companies, so they can do the heavy lifting for you, but, especially when left with a start-up budget, that isn’t a possibility. With this in mind, we have to be creative in our recruitment efforts because, talking to someone will always be better than talking to no one. The great thing is, anyone can recruit and talk to users, you don’t have to be a user researcher, UX designer or product owner.
So, as a start-up, and for anyone on a more modest budget, what are some hacks, or, better said, approaches to recruiting participants that are, both, easy and cheap? Here are some ways I have broken through the cheap budget barrier, spoken with users, and had a positive impact!
When should I recruit participants?
Not every little change or button needs to be tested, or talked about, but when it comes to larger changes or generally understanding your audience, it is important to talk to your users. Here is a list of methods that require recruiting:
- Usability testing
- Generative (discovery) research interviews
- Card sorting
- Journey mapping
Always note, it can take some time to recruit, so it is important to start recruiting as early as possible, because, sometimes, it can take 1-2 weeks to get enough participants!
Approximate your user
Before we even start recruiting, we have to understand who our users are so we can optimize our recruiting efforts. Startups rarely have personas, customer segments or user profiles to help understand who your target, or ideal, customer is. Unfortunately, this is one of the most important parts of recruiting: talking to the right people. If you don’t end up talking to the “right” people, your research may result in a complete waste of time and, at a startup, no one has time to waste. What are some ways around this?
- Take a day to sit in a room and define your target user; bring in internal stakeholders that may have a good idea of who the target user will look like (such as marketing, sales, customer support), and come up with proto-personas. These are, essentially, wireframes of personas that consist of hypotheses about who your user is, and are a great starting point for who you should be talking to
- Look at competitors similar to you, and recruit based on their audiences. You can even recruit people who use the competitors product, and during the interview, ask them how they would make it better – a bit of a bonus!
- Make sure to write a great screener, which will get you the participants you need. Is there a particular behavior you are looking for (such as traveled X amount of times in the past 3 months), is it necessary they have used your product (or a competitor’s product) or do they need to be a certain age or hold a certain professional title? Make sure you include the right criteria in order to evaluate whether or not that person would be your target participant
Internal user testing
I have used internal testing at nearly every company I have worked for. To begin with, it is a great way to learn about the product in general, but it is also a wonderful method to get (sometimes very valuable) feedback from people who care about the product. Generally, I will start with account managers, customer support and sales, as they generally have the most contact with customers and understanding of what customers might want. When I do internal testing, I book a time and room, get snacks/cookies and send out an email asking for interested parties. Usually, within the hour, I fill up most of the slots, making it incredibly fast. This also serves a great purpose in getting rid of all of the issues in prototypes or the product that are more “common sense,” leaving space for testing with users to be more productive and innovative. It is always a great start, and a way to get some quick (and free) feedback.
Use customer support
Is there a customer support team or someone who deals with customer support/tickets? If you have a customer call line, it is incredibly helpful to listen into calls. Although you can’t guarantee you will get a specific call about a certain area of the product, it is very insightful to understanding the most common problems your customers are having, and potentially, what you could do to fix them. Another option is to filter and look through support tickets. With this, you can funnel down to support tickets containing issues you want to learn more about. In addition, and similarly to internal testing, it is great to speak to the support team members and the most common issues they are hearing. I’ve heard of a company that has Support Days, where users can come in and get their questions answered in-person. There is always a researcher recruiting participants and running usability sessions during these sessions.
Emailing users for feedback
This is always my first go-to when I think about recruitment hacks, and is probably one of the most effective ways to recruit. It can feel a bit like cold-calling (cold-emailing), but it can lead to some really great results. I will obtain a list of users from either, a newsletter subscription, account managers or any other database we have been keeping, and simply email them asking for their feedback in exchange for an incentive. I ask them if they would be willing to provide feedback on a certain feature or concept idea. The way I make this more unique, and doable, is by offering them four different ways they can give feedback: come join us in-person, hop on a video call, have them record themselves giving feedback and send it back to me, have them respond back via email. Obviously, the in-person and video call are the best options, but we want to open our feedback intake up as much as possible. I offer different levels of incentives for each option.
If you have already done enough internal testing, or you don’t have the ability to do it, you can always take your prototype to the street, coffeeshop, mall, what have it, and perform some guerrilla research. Of course, this depends on your product. If you have a very niche product that only a specific user base benefits from, this may not be the best method for you. However, if you have a more broad product that can be used by the masses, guerrilla research can be your friend. It isn’t the most reliable way to research, but it can give you some good feedback to help propel you forward. It is pretty tough to approach people when, usually, they just want to be left in peace, but there are a few ways to make it easier. I have set myself up in a coffeeshop (my neighborhood Starbucks was super nice letting me do this), with a sign on my computer asking people for 30 minutes to talk about X, Y or Z for a free drink/food of their choice. People were surprisingly interested, and I had five people who sat down and spoke with me in the span of four hours. They weren’t the most insightful interviews I’ve ever conducted, but I did get some information that helped the team make our first round of decisions. Even if you can’t recruit your ideal target user, it is still better to have someone walk through the prototype than no one. Other ideas are visiting a co-working space and setting up a research station or asking friends/family to take a look.
Know your limits
For usability tests, I usually aim for 5-7 users for each test, and for discovery research, I aim for about 12 (of the same user group). Most of the time, even with this smaller number of participants, you will collect enough data to see trends emerging. In case anyone has objections to this small number, Nielsen Norman Group has done extensive research on how many users it takes to find trends. If you don’t see trends, or patterns, are weak, you may be talking to different user groups. At this point, I will go back to the definition of our target user, and recruiting surveys, to see if something is off. I will also speak with a few more participants to see if there are some patterns we are eventually able to observe. When it comes down to it, some research is always better than no research.
Keep a panel and recycle
Maybe you have run some user research sessions before, and you are looking to test
some new ideas or prototypes, but are struggling to find new participants. One hack is to think back to your previous research sessions and try to identify which sessions went well. Usually, after a research session, I write down whether or not the research session was successful and I ask if the participant is okay with my contacting them for future studies, so I know if I can recycle the participant. It isn’t the most effective method to get research insights repeatedly from the same set of people, and can introduce some bias, so don’t use the same people every single time, but, if you need participants, recycling isn’t cheating.
You don’t always have to offer money (beta testing)
Similar to above, you can do other things to incentivize users to talk to you, outside of expensive gift cards or vouchers. For instance, I have worked at companies where we offer discount codes to our own product, which works quite nicely, or some sort of swag (water bottles, keychains, notebooks). One of the other most effective incentives I have encountered is setting up a beta testing panel. In exchange for feedback, these users are the ones that get a first look at upcoming features or ideas. The way we I have marketed this in the past is telling participants they have the most influence to shape our decisions early on, and can be a part of customizing our product. These users are generally ones I have highlighted as wonderful sessions, and have been willing to give us additional feedback
Finally, some great time-saving recruitment tools:
- Google Forms
- Zoom video conference
As difficult as recruiting can be, it doesn’t have to be impossible for those on a tighter budget. You don’t need recruiting agencies, or a dedicated participant recruiter, nor do you need to be a user researcher, or in the UX field. You just need some creativity and patience! I’m hoping these different ideas will bring you through your recruiting faster, and smarter. Always feel free to share more ideas and stories with us!