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.
Online Research Panels
I’m a long-time customer of Respondent.io and recently tried UserInterviews.com in 2020 with success. In both cases, you post an online screener, and then can hand-select who you’d like to include the study based on who qualifies. UserInterviews provides an opportunity to double-screen each participant. I had success finding both B2C and B2B users.
Email your existing list of customers or prospective customers to find test subjects. I email small batches at a time, and then use Qualtrics or another online survey platform to deliver the emails so that I can easily remail those who did not complete the screener (or who weren’t already disqualified).
Tip: Use your survey tool’s email provider to avoid getting hundreds of bounced emails in your inbox.
For really difficult-to-find niches (e.g., business executives, doctors), a professional recruiter is worth every penny.
Tip: For national recruits, hire several regional recruiters to each find a few participants.
Research invitations sent from the company’s Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram account is a low-cost method recruiting method.
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, dog parks, libraries, community centers, and other public places. I’ve even hired a Task Rabbit to pick up my printed flyers at Staples, then distribute them all over Atlanta for me.
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.
Tip: 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 so their input may not be truthful. I find 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 research 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.
Website Intercept — This is used to be my best source for participants, but stopped being effective about 3-5 years ago.