Recruiting Research Participants

Finding enough participants for your research can be tough. Professional recruiting agencies charge upwards of $107 for each usability test participant. On top of that, you need to provide an incentive to the participants themselves. That can get steep even for a lot of large companies.

So how do you recruit participants yourself? It depends on what you’re trying to find out and how you’re going to do it.

For our initial surveys, card sorts, and interviews we wanted to gather information from our existing user base. The goal for this phase was finding out who our actual users are and what they’re interested in. We reached out to our site’s registered users and our recent customers and invited them to participate. (Make sure you follow CAN-SPAM law).

After we have a solid understanding of our audience, we can design our basic prototypes. These are sets of lo-fi drawings or sketches that demonstrate how the navigation will look, where the basic page elements will go, and what the content organization will be like. To test these prototypes, we don’t really need to use participants from our existing or even potential user base. What we’re testing is that the infrastructure of the design itself works well for a general audience. So how do you find those participants? We’ve reached out to our local library and formed a partnership to conduct user testing at the branch down the street. You may have existing relationships with the community that you can leverage for this purpose. If all else fails, this is a stage where you can test on your co-workers with the least danger of introducing organizational bias into the data.

If it’s easy for you to get participants from your target audience, or if your site is aimed exclusively at a very specific group of users then by all means recruit those users for basic prototype testing. But most organizations will want to limit the amount of times they reach out to the same group of existing users and ask them for something.

Once you’ve ironed out all the problems uncovered during basic prototype testing, you can fill in the blanks and make your advanced prototypes. These prototypes are reasonable approximations of the final design, so you’ll want to find participants from your target audience. Try reaching out to other groups and organizations in the same field to recruit.

In general, I think non-profits have an advantage when recruiting participants because you’re appealing to their desire to help a good cause. It increases the likelyhood that people and organizations will assist you and reduces their expectations for material rewards. Make sure not to abuse that goodwill and that the groups that help you get something out of the deal as well.

Starting Your Research Efforts

The starting point for any web redesign effort should be finding out what your users think about your existing site, and where they want improvements. You may be thinking of adding a bunch of tools to integrate with delicious/flickr/youtube etc, and that could be great for your site, but is that what people really want?

Instead of starting with ideas for potential features, follow Jesse James Garrett‘s advice and ask yourself “What do people want to accomplish? How does this activity fit into their lives? How can I deliver on those desires?”

But if you’re here you probably know all about that. So how do you actually start finding out what your users think?

We just finished doing our first phase of research on the user base of, the flagship site of the National Crime Prevention Council, and here’s how we did it:

Fortunately for us, our Research department has a Quask server that we used to create an online survey we could link to or send out via email. If you don’t have access to such a tool, there are online substitutes like Survey Monkey.

A survey can tell us about our users’ age/gender/profession, how often they visit the site and for how long, what topics they’re interested in, and what they use the site for. What it can’t tell us is how they think our content should be organized.

To do that we need to create a card sort exercise. In a card sort, you take a list of items (in this case, pieces of content from your website) and have users put them into groups and name them. This gives us a great deal of insight into how our information hierarchy should be designed. There are a few different web-based card sorting tools, for our project we tried Optimal Sort and were pleased with the results. For more info on card sorting, see this Boxes and Arrows guide.

We linked the card sort to the end of the survey and sent it to our site’s registered users (the ones who’ve agreed to be contacted by us) and wrote a blog post on the home page soliciting participation.

Has your non-profit tried this type of research before? Have you done something completely different?

This Blog

This blog chronicles the process of improving user experience for the web properties of a non-profit organization. Specifically, the National Crime Prevention Council.

The fields of interaction design, user experience design, and information architecture have had a profound impact on the development of the web. Businesses have used these disciplines to shape the way their customers buy and use products and services.

Non-profit organizations have begun to employ many of the same methods to promote their causes, inform the public, and connect with supporters. How can the lessons learned in business be modified to suit these new purposes?