This post is part of our series of articles: User research on a budget.

That’s it, you are ready to start your user research. You know what you are looking for, but now you need some participants. If you are really desperate, you can always ask your family, your friends or friends of a friend to help you. It’s not ideal… and will add some bias to your research. I would usually say that it’s better than doing nothing, but with a little more effort, you will find the right people and ensure the relevance of your research.

Here are some tips to help you!


You only need 5 users!

User research - 5 participants

The good news is that you only need 5 users for your interviews or usability testing (Nielsen Norman Group)! 5 users are enough to start identifying patterns, main pain points and new opportunities.

With more than 5 users, you might find more insights but with 5 users you will get the most of your test, optimising the cost/benefit ratio.

Image source: Nielsen Norman Group - Number of problem found VS number of participants
Image source: Nielsen Norman Group – Number of problems found VS number of participants

But most of all, user research shouldn’t be a one shot. You won’t address all the insights at once anyway. And if you change a feature, the context will be different, and the other insights might not be relevant anymore. You should consider integrating this as part of your design / development process.

My advice: Test with 5 users and test often!!

Note: if you are doing other types of research, you might need to find more participants.
Quantitative studies: at least 20 users
Card sorting: 15 users
Eyetracking: 39 users


Where to find them?

User research - Usability testing - Participants - Recruitment - Where to find them

Go on site
Go directly where your users might do the activity you are interviewing for.
A couple of examples:
Why people are doing sport? > Go to a gym
Research on a travel app? > Go to the waiting area in the airport
Working on a gardening website? > Go to a gardening store

Use your marketing channels:
Newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, Advertise it on your website, etc
This one is ideal if you want to interview your current customers. Pick them in your database.

Use your personal network
Publish it on your own personal social accounts (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc) and ask your friends to share it with their friends.

Facebook advertuser testing - facebook ad example
Set a simple Facebook advert. First target your audience. Then select a duration and a maximum budget. In my experience, £50 for a week is a good ratio. Do not forget to target your audience according to the people you want to find: age, location, interests, etc. If you offer an incentive, make it really clear in the image or in the description, you will get more clicks.

Gumtree (or Craigslist in the US)
It seems to be also quite efficient and it’s totally free. Again, if you offer an incentive, make it really clear in the title.

Another good way to advertise for your session. Where to put the posters? Same answer than the « Go on site » section.

In a cafe
If your research can address pretty much anyone, you can also sit in a cafe for a day and ask people for some of their time. But be really clear about the duration, otherwise you will have people leaving in the middle of the test.
(Coffee is on you!)


Offer a small reward

User research - Participants - Recruitment - Incentive - Usability testing

You are asking people to spend time to help you on your project, you should offer them a small incentive. The minimum is to offer a drink (coffee / tea / beer). If you have a little bit more budget, you should offer a minimum of a £30 incentive. (Don’t go over £70, otherwise, people will only come for the money!)


Do a screening upfront and be selective

User research - Usability testing - Screener - Recruitment

When doing ‘guerilla style’ user research, you can’t really afford to be picky, but finding the right participants will make a huge difference in the relevance of your insights. You should frame your users by setting a small survey to recruit the right users: a couple of background questions to be sure that the person will match what you are looking for.

To prepare your screener, think about what you really need for your study. What type of users? What make them special?

  1. Who do you want to talk to? / Who do you want to exclude?
  2. What exact criteria will allow you to identify that person?
  3. What screening question will you ask?

You can create a quick and free survey using Google Form, and then use the link on all your communication. Your participants will have to use this link to register.

Do not forget to ask for their availabilities, it will save you some time to plan the sessions, and their contact details.

user research - screener - example - recruitment
Example of screening questions for a user testing session at lowcostholidays

For example, at lowcostholidays, for our usability studies, we usually need participants that are really looking for a « Hotel + Flight » type of holidays. If we are testing the website, we don’t want to have users that only book rental houses for their holidays because they won’t pay attention to what would really matter to them. They will only focus on clicking on the right button to achieve the task.

At the same time, we also want people that are in that ‘mental process’ of booking the right hotel for their next trip, to make it as real as possible. So, 2 key questions for us would be: What type of accommodation do you usually look for? What do you have in mind for your next holiday?


Consider extreme users

Recruitment - User research - extreme users

Mostly for interviews or ethnographic research, « extreme users » can give you really strong insights. Their needs and their behaviours are usually amplified and more notable.

You should consider studying the 2 extremes:

  • the non users
  • the pros

Ask them why they are rejecting your product or why they can’t live without it. It might help you to identify key insights, or help you to write a strategy to make the difference on the market.


Final tips

  • Plan 1 or 2 more participants just in case someone cancel at the last minute.
    If you already have what you need, give them the incentive and thanks them.
  • Give the incentive at the beginning of the session.
    This way, your participants won’t have the feeling that they need to give you the right answers to get the money at the end.
  • Prepare well your communication and you adverts.
    Be sure that you have nice pictures and nice designs for your posters and adverts that inspire trust and give some motivation to come.
  • Have a clear messaging on the key points:
    What is it? When? Where? Duration? Incentive?
  • Be sure that your email address and your contact details inspire trust!
    Sometimes you don’t want to share the name of your company or your client because it’s important that your participants don’t do some research before the session. But be careful!
    I had a bad experience once when I tried to create a non-branded email address for a usability test. I created this address 2 days before and I sent the session details including the image of the advert. So my email end up in the Spam box… And there were no logo in my email signature, no reference company and I asked them to come to a house at a personal address… 2 girls bailed at the last minute because they thought it was too weird…


And you, do you have other tips to find the best participants with no budget?


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1 Comment

  1. David
    16 July 2015 at 11 h 34 min — Reply

    Great article. Another great way (a bit like a poster) is leaflets on cars windscreens in an area that has roughly the right demographic.

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