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Last updated on 10/3/22

Recruit Participants

In design research, the people you talk to can be called participants, users, or informants. Regardless of the term you use, the idea is that you're learning from people other than yourself.

So, you know what you want to research and what you need to do. Now, how are you going to go about finding people from your target audience to interview? The reality is, some projects are going to be more straightforward than others. Things you may need to define are:

  • Age

  • Gender

  • Location

  • Quality you're searching for (such as "regularly listens to audiobooks" or "uses a flip phone")

Depending on your research plan, you may need to define your desired informants in a statement such as:

Dog owners between the age of 32-42 who live in San Diego and visit a dog park at least twice a week.


Dog walkers with a minimum of 3 years professional experience. 

You may end up defining your target interviewees with a few different statements to cover various applicable profiles.

Finding Informants

There are many ways you can go about finding people to interview related to your study interest. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  • People you already know (although sometimes this can be awkward and hard to take seriously).

  • Friends of friends (this is ideal because they're "trusted," but you don't already know them).

  • Public postings (post a sign in a local library or shop; you can't control who will respond, make sure you're explicit).

  • Hire a recruitment service (for companies with a budget).

  • Use an online recruitment service (for companies with a budget).

 The most common way to find informants is to ask your network. It could be as simple as posting something on Facebook that says, "Any coffee lovers in Denver? I'd love to talk to you about a research project I'm working on!"

You want to reach beyond your immediate network, so asking your friends if they know "anyone who...." is even better! Sometimes the subject you're researching isn't particularly glamorous (like in the following examples), so don't be afraid to let your personality shine through in your outreach:

I'm gearing up for my next user research study! Any Los Angeles-area friends work for companies that use t-shirt printers?? Sweet gift certificate involved for participants.

Last call for participants for a research study in the London area about t-shirt printing! A gift card to talk to me about labels for 1 hour! (What a great deal!!) Maybe your office manager has a contact? Let me know if you have any friends, family, or co-workers who might qualify!

Setting Criteria

It’s terrible when you get to an interview and find out the participant is not the right fit. Or maybe they only signed up because they heard about the incentive. Unfortunately, you’ve driven an hour out of town, so you’ve already wasted time. Now that you’ve learned your lesson the hard way, you’ll plan better the next time.

With the dog lover’s example above, you might want to express that you are only seeking dog owners who live in Denver to participate. You want to make sure that people are aware of this to avoid wasting time.

As you get more into professional projects, a “screener” can help by asking a few simple up-front questions to filter out those who are not part of your target research audience while also helping to manage expectations. Steve Portigal, the author of Interviewing Users, shares his version of the screener he uses. You could also share this document with recruiting agencies when working on larger-scale projects or researching a set of users who are not easy to find.


Let’s face it. People lead busy lives. Sometimes they want to help but don’t have time. Hence, a little bonus, or incentive, can make it more worthwhile.

You don’t have to worry about this as a student (unless you want to treat someone to a coffee for helping you out), but in the real world, you may encounter it depending on who you work for.

The other reality is no one has an endless budget. You may be able to find a few different kinds of incentives to give in exchange for time/interviews once the session is complete:

  • Cash (although the finance department tends to hate this because there is no receipt to trace it).

  • Gift cards.

  • Swag: t-shirt, keychains, USB sticks.

  • Free pizza or coffee.

Legal Details

This topic wouldn't be complete without addressing the legal side of things. This note is to help you cover your bases and be aware should you ever find yourself working on a design team for a company.

Often, research teams have a waiver or a form that interviewees need to sign. In essence, it's a permission slip, so they're aware they're participating in a test or interview and that it may be recorded. It's not something that is often shared online because you need a lawyer to review it. But, again, not all teams use one because these research topics aren't classified information, but you may encounter it.

Also, a client may require you (or your informants) to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), meaning that you can't speak about anything discussed outside of the interview. This is something that primarily happens with multinational or global corporations. Often the design team may know who the client is, but they'll frame the research carefully so that the informant doesn't need or doesn't guess who they are.

Here's an additional resource to help understand the Basics of Recruiting Users.

Let's recap! 

  • Defining your desired informants in a statement will help you determine how and where to recruit.

  • The most common way to find informants is to ask your network. This could be as simple as posting a message on your social networks.

  • Make sure to clearly define your criteria for who you need to interview to avoid wasting time with unrelated participants.

  • Using incentives can help motivate people to participate, but make sure it won’t influence the research itself.

Let’s see in the next chapter how to formulate the right type of questions to ask our participants! 

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