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  1. Service manual
  2. User research
  3. Finding participants for user research

Participants are the people you recruit to take part in your research. For your research to be effective, your participants must be actual or likely users of your service.

It’s also important to do research with 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

Identifying your target groups

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

  • social research reports
  • government and industry statistics
  • service performance data and analytics
  • survey results
  • user profiles and personas

Define your recruitment criteria

Your recruitment criteria should clearly specify the people you want to participate in your research.

Depending on your service and the research you plan to do, your criteria might include:

  • a particular demographic - for example, young people aged 16 to 24
  • a specific target user group - such as small business owners or job centre staff
  • a particular experience - for example, people who have recently moved home or applied for a government grant
  • a problematic situation - such as people who’ve lost an important document
  • particular ways of accessing your service - for example, those who rely on a screen reader, use speech recognition software, or who only access the internet at a library or day centre

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

  • age
  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • social and economic status

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

Numbers of participants

The research methods you are using will determine the number of participants that you need. For example, you would typically have between 4 and 8 participants for a round of interviews or usability tests.

Choosing the best approaches to find participants

To recruit participants you can:

  • use a research recruitment agency
  • work with a professional body, specialist charity or community group
  • invite existing users of your service to take part
  • find people at a venue on the day
  • engage with colleagues to recruit relevant staff

Using a recruitment agency

Agencies are generally best for recruiting the general public.

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 it’s not appropriate to use these, you should follow your organisation’s processes for selecting and appointing suppliers.

Working with a third-party organisation

Approaching relevant professional bodies, charities and community groups can often be an effective way to recruit specific types of participant.

The staff and expert members of these organisations can be useful sources of information. But make sure that the members you recruit for research are representative of the actual and likely users of your service.

Inviting existing users

People are often interested in helping to improve services they use. So existing users can be a good source of research participants.

Make sure you have users’ permission before you send them invitations to take part in specific research activities. For example, you might describe some improvements you are looking to make in a service newsletter, and provide a way for users to register their interest in research. Or you might ask users who provide feedback whether they are interested in taking part in research.

Finding participants at a venue

When you are doing pop-up research, you recruit participants on the day, at the venue. Make sure you have permission to be there and to distribute information about your research.

To recruit participants:

  • go to a place where your target participants are likely to be (for example, a library, college or community centre)
  • use banners and fliers to advertise your research
  • encourage people to take part, but don’t put anyone under pressure

Engaging with colleagues

The guide on designing services for government users has information on which internal users you should research with.

Avoid using your own staff for research into the public facing parts of your service. Their knowledge and experience can mean they will use the service in a very different way.

Providing an information sheet

Research sessions are more effective when participants are well prepared and comfortable. This is why we recommend that you provide them with an information sheet that describes your research before you meet them for the session.

Protecting participants’ privacy

As part of recruiting participants and managing research sessions you will normally collect and use data about participants. For example, contact details like their names and addresses, and their answers to screening questions.

You will need to manage this personal data carefully to protect participants’ privacy.

Make sure you:

  • collect and use the minimum information you need
  • share participants’ details only with colleagues who need to use them
  • delete participants’ details as soon as you no longer need them to manage their participation in your research

Giving incentives

It’s normal for members of the public to get an incentive in return for their time. You should also consider compensating third-party organisations who help you find participants.

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.

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. If you’re recruiting participants yourself, you can use appropriate vouchers. Check with your department if you’re not sure what’s appropriate.

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

We recommend giving participants their incentive at the start of their research session. This avoids any suggestion that participants have to respond in a particular way to get their incentive, and means you can end a problematic session without having to deal with the incentive.

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 speaker 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 or third-party organisation to find participants, make sure you can still find out what assistance participants need.

You can ask the user research community which agencies, charities and other bodies they’ve used successfully.

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 research activity is
  • when the sessions are scheduled
  • where you’re doing the research
  • how you are recruiting the participants

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

For example, 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.

Examples and case studies

How we recruited people with low or no digital skills on Carer’s Allowance.

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