I see the question “How do you find usability participants?” a lot on Quora and Slack.
The simple truth is, there is no secret place to find participants. But, there are many places to find willing volunteers.
This is probably my best source for participants, as I know they’re already looking at the test site. I typically use a pop-up invitation to invite visitors to participate, then direct them to an online screener to collect their contact information.
Email your existing list of customers or prospective customers to find test subjects.
I will email small batches at a time, and then use Qualtrics or Survey Monkey to deliver the emails so that I can easily remail those who did not complete the screener (or who weren’t already disqualified).
Bonus: Use your survey tool’s email provider to avoid getting hundreds of bounced emails in your inbox.
I’ve had mixed results here, so it really depends on your audience. This is my most inexpensive paid method.
Purchased Email List or Panel
I rarely use this route as it can be extremely expensive. To save a little money, look for smaller, independent panel companies if you can.
Private Online Community
C Space (formerly known as Communispace), My Take, Passenger, and companies like them are a fabulous long-term investment for uncovering insights on a regular basis.
Twitter + Facebook Posts
There is more bias than usual when you go this route because these are likely your more engaged customers in addition to being social media users. But if you specifically want social media users — they are the perfect participant pool.
If your study will be in-person, this can be a great option. One of my past clients was a public transportation organization, so we printed up fliers to hand out to people as they got on the bus or train.
This same concept also works for bulletin boards in coffee shops and other public places.
Trade Shows & Other In-Person Events
If you can, tag along to your company’s next trade show or any event where there will be throngs of customers and prospects.
It’s easiest to work in a team: one person approaches a prospect, while the other leads the study.
If your target audience is college students, go to a park. Moms with young children? Playgrounds. Freelancers and business people? Coffee shops.
If you’re targeting participants at a place of business, then be prepared to be asked to leave. If I do the coffee shop route, I always buy something and test with just one or 2 people. Respectful, discrete, and unobtrusive.
Bonus: See trade shows above for my “tag team” tip.
How I Don’t Recruit:
LinkedIn Ads — They simply won’t let you place ads for research studies. I tried placing an ad and even talked to their ad team to try to find a work-around. No dice. Update: LinkedIn now allows recruiting for research!
Craigslist — Only professional test-takers sign up here, and their input is almost always garbage. They will say anything to be included in a study. I once had a Craigslist participant confess to me that he hoped his performance in the study would lead to a job.
Co-workers + Employees — They simply know too much (unless, of course, you’re intranet testing or evaluating other employee tools or communications). I WILL use co-workers to do a practice session, to ensure timing and the discussion guide are working as expected.
Usability Tool Panels — For my needs and my clients’ needs, usability SAS companies’ have too little recruiting criteria to find the desired target (usually just age and gender). Plus, it’s often too cost prohibitive if you want to run an unmoderated study with hundreds of people.