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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:

  • are disabled or use assistive technologies
  • have low digital skills or poor literacy
  • may need help to use your service

Meeting the Digital Service Standard

You must carry out user research as part of meeting:

You’ll have to explain how you researched with different user groups in your service assessments.

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 (eg women under 30 years of age)
  • a specific target user group (eg small business owners or job centre staff)
  • particular circumstances (eg users who have recently moved home or witnessed a crime)
  • specific access needs (eg users who rely on a screen reader, magnifier, mouth stick or head wand)
  • a specific level of digital skills or use of digital technology (eg 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’ll need:

Recruiting participants with access needs

You must recruit disabled participants. Make sure they let you know their needs ahead of a session so you can make sure they can participate comfortably. For example, they might need to:

  • bring someone with them
  • use an assistive technology
  • bring a guide dog

Finding participants

To recruit participants you can:

  • use a research recruitment agency
  • 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

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.

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.

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 (eg a library, college or community group)
  • get permission to use the area
  • try to get a balanced sample of participants

Avoid 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, you should also make sure they don’t exclude people with low digital and literacy skills or 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. When you use an agency to recruit participants, the incentive is typically cash. 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 using an agency, avoid handling cash incentives yourself. Recruitment agencies can send the incentive directly to the participants once the research is complete.

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

Finding recruitment agencies

The Digital Marketplace includes frameworks that you can use.

If you don’t want to use this, you’ll have to follow your organisation’s processes for selecting and appointing suppliers.

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:

Guidance first published