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  1. Service manual
  2. User research
  3. Find user research participants

Your research must include all the different kinds of people who may need your service, including those who:

  • have disabilities or use assistive technologies
  • have limited digital skills or poor literacy
  • may need help to use your service

Define your participant criteria

First, define all the different types of people you need to include in your research. Use existing research and service data to help you do this, including:

  • analytics
  • general population statistics
  • user personas (if available)

You can think about who to include in specific rounds of research when you’ve defined your overall criteria.

Specify target groups

Depending on your research objectives, your criteria might be:

  • a particular demographic - for example, women under 30
  • a specific target user group - such as small business owners or job centre staff
  • particular circumstances - for example, users who have recently moved home or witnessed a crime
  • people with specific disabilities or ways of accessing your service - for example, users who rely on a screen reader or speech recognition software
  • a specific level of digital skills or use of digital technology - for example, users who have basic online skills

Review your participant criteria with your team to make sure you’re recruiting the right people to answer the questions you have.

Outside of any specific criteria, always try to recruit a representative spread of:

  • age
  • gender
  • social and economic status
  • ethnicity
  • education level

The research methods you use will determine the number of participants that you need. For example, you should have:

Finding participants

To recruit participants you can:

  • use a research recruitment agency
  • find people at a venue on the day
  • work with a professional body, specialist charity or community group
  • create a panel of potential participants (for regular research with a specific group of people)
  • invite existing users of your service to take part

Agencies are generally best for recruiting members of the general public. For specific user groups, a relevant professional body, charity or community group can often be more effective.

If you’re recruiting people with disabilities, it might help to ask the user research community which agencies and charities they’ve used successfully.

Avoid using your own staff for research unless you’re designing an internal service that they’re likely to use.

Using a recruitment agency

A good recruitment agency can find participants quickly and reliably, typically taking 10 days to get participants. You’ll need to provide them with a recruitment brief. Work closely with the recruitment agency to make sure they fully understand and can meet your brief.

Ask any potential supplier what experience they have in recruiting participants with disabilities. When you’ve appointed them, you can give them disability screeners to help them recruit the right participants for your needs.

The Digital Marketplace includes frameworks that you can use to help you find a supplier. If you don’t want to use these, you should follow your organisation’s processes for selecting and appointing suppliers.

Finding people at a venue

If you want to do pop-up research, which involves going to a specific venue and approaching people directly, you should:

  • go to a place where your target users are likely to be (for example, a library, college or community group)
  • get permission to use the area
  • encourage people to take part, but don’t put anyone under pressure

Including participants with disabilities

When recruiting participants with disabilities, check if they want or need:

  • to be contacted in a particular way - for example, people who are deaf or hard of hearing may prefer emails or text messages to phone calls
  • any communication support - like a lip reader or sign language interpreter
  • to use any assistive technologies, like a screen reader or speech recognition software - if they do, it’s usually easier to visit them at home or work
  • printed materials, like the consent form, in a particular font size or format
  • any help getting to or from the research venue
  • to meet at a particular location - find out more about choosing a location

If you’re using a recruitment agency to find participants, let them know what information you need.

Avoiding bias in recruitment

It’s hard to recruit an unbiased sample of user research participants. This is because you’re likely to include some people and exclude others depending on:

  • what the activity is
  • when the sessions are scheduled
  • where you’re doing the research

The best way to limit this risk is to use a variety of user research activities and recruitment approaches.

If you’re using an agency, make sure they don’t exclude people with disabilities or limited digital and literacy skills. At the same time, check they don’t over-recruit people with flexible work patterns.

Giving incentives

It’s normal for members of the public to get an incentive in return for their time.

How much this is will depend on the type of participant and the length of the research session. You can ask agencies for advice on how much you should give. If you’re recruiting participants yourself, you can use appropriate vouchers.

You may need to pay extra expenses to help participants with disabilities take part in research - they may need a helper, taxis or someone to help with communication like a sign language interpreter.

Avoid handling cash incentives yourself. Recruitment agencies can send the incentive directly to the participants once the research is complete.

Alternatively, recruitment agencies can provide a ‘host’ to manage your participants and hand over incentives on your behalf. There is usually an additional cost for this, which you should factor into your research budget.

Examples and case studies

Learn how GOV.UK uses benchmarking:

You may also find the following guides useful:

Published by:
User research community
Last update:

Clarified guidance on including participants with disabilities.

  1. Guidance first published