Q: How can we find people to be in our studies?

Study participants can be found in many ways.

Start by defining the types of users you want for your study. A typical persona will not be enough here. For example, if you have a persona called “Amy”, a 27-year-old office manager who likes romantic comedies, etc., whom will you recruit for your study? People named Amy? 27-year-olds? Office managers? Romantic comedy fans?

Instead, for each user type (perhaps “Office Manager” in this case), you need to define the relevant set of demographic and psychographic criteria that represent the actual users you are targeting. This might include:

  • an age range
  • a minimum level of education
  • a list of possible job titles (or, better yet, key job responsibilities)
  • the gender breakdown (% female and % male)
  • a minimum level of experience in the job
  • a geography (for example, “U.S. only” or “evenly split between North America and Europe”)
  • an income range
  • specific attitudes, beliefs, motivations and interests that matter
  • etc.

Next, determine how many participants from each user type should be included in your study. The number will be based on: whether you’re doing a survey, informal usability test, etc.; your budget; how confident you want to be that the study data are “correct”; and other factors.

Be sure to recruit in the proportions that match your target users—if 90% of your website’s targeted users are women, then 90% of your participants should be women. Also, the best data will come from people who are selected randomly from the population of people matching your criteria. So go beyond family, friends and co-workers.

The best ways to find participants will vary depending on the people you’re targeting, the type of study, and other factors. Sources for potential participants include:

  • public places (the mall, the street, etc.)
  • market research firms that recruit like this for a living
  • referrals from friends, family and previous study participants
  • trade shows and conferences (good for domain-expert users)
  • your customer database
  • newspaper or online ads you place
  • religious or not-for-profit groups (who may help you recruit in exchange for a donation)
  • social networking sites
  • that User Group you so wisely created earlier for exactly this purpose.

When recruiting, have potential participants answer a questionnaire to see whether they are in fact good matches for your study.

Include surrogate users (people who know or claim to know the real users) only as a last resort, and interpret their data carefully. They might lead you down the wrong path.

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