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Trying to recruit specialized users? Focus on finding one person first
Finding a way in to a specialized community is important
Recruiting people isn’t my favorite part of the user research process: coordinating e-mails, setting up conference lines, and wrangling people can feel like a chore. But it can be a necessary part of the research process, especially if you don’t have a recruiter to help gather participants for user testing.
However, I’ve only recently had to tackle a trickier problem: how do I recruit specialized users? Approaching people in public places, such as in libraries, coffee shops, or online, is one thing: How do you reliably recruit users with specialized skills or experiences?
The answer, for me, was at the heart of ethnographic research: I had to integrate into their community to find participants. I only realized the importance when I had to establish myself from scratch.
The importance of having an “in”
When you start designing for specialized audiences, sometimes you’ll be thrown a lifeline that comes in the makeup of your team. Often, a Subject Matter Expert (SME) will join your meetings. They won’t just provide their user opinion: they can also provide a lot of context about the system.
For example, you might have someone who’s worked on a GUI-less interface like IBM i help the team transition over to a more modern system.
This SME can also be crucial to the recruiting process: they’re likely to know other members of the organization or larger community you can user test with, or at the very least, where you should try to solicit participants for testing. If you don’t have someone like that assisting the recruiting process, you need to establish that quickly.
If you have the resource, one of the most straightforward solutions is to hire a recruiting agency to fill this role. While most organizations avoid this approach due to the cost, it can be an excellent solution for super-specialized users or if it’s likely to take a long time to seek them out (i.e., finding C-suite executives to user test with).
The other option is to seek out your own participants for user testing. If that’s the case, how do you start?
How to recruit specialized users for testing
Create a screener with references to your personas
The first thing to do is determine your eligibility criteria and a screener to find who you’re looking for. Whether you’re using a recruiter or recruiting people yourself, you need to think about who your users are.
However, one thing that can be helpful here is to reference your personas to understand where you might be able to find them. Persona elements like social media (or technology) use and user motivations can help you figure out where to start looking.
For example, Facebook is a better place to recruit doctors for user testing than LinkedIn. The reason is simple: Doctors don’t get hired through LinkedIn (most of the time), so they have low motivation to use the site. However, it’s tough to socialize with their schedules, so finding communities of like-minded medical professionals (on Facebook) might be much more appealing.
Once you’ve done this, this is when you need to think about how you’ll establish credibility enough to find an “in.”
Establish an “in” through credibility/value
A critical thing about recruiting specialized users is that you take the opposite approach than you would with the public. When recruiting with the public, it’s better to go “wide”: putting up flyers and asking as many people as possible is a great way to ensure that you’ll get enough participants for user testing.
However, it’s necessary to go “deep” with specialized users. This is for several reasons: first and foremost, there might not be that big of a user base available to you. If there might only be 100 potential users available instead of 10,000, you want to ensure that you don’t annoy them all.
But going deep matters for another reason: establishing a close relationship with members in a particular community can lead to snowball sampling.
Snowball sampling is when your participants reach out to family, friends, or other members of the organization/community to find more participants for your study. It can often be one of the easier ways for you to find more participants (even if it’s likely to encounter some bias).
However, a crucial part of this process is establishing credibility and your value proposition, especially for time-poor individuals.
Establishing this might vary from field to field, but I’ve found three ways that tend to be effective:
Advertising through professional organizations (or groups that require approval)
Having someone vouch for you/social media group (i.e., a member of the community)
The first is especially important in fields like Healthcare, where “having a doctor onboard” can be the difference between someone willing to hear you out or disregard your e-mail. However, that’s not the only way.
Taking an ethnographic strategy for user testing
Joining professional or community organizations are another valid (but longer-term) strategy for user testing. Almost every field or group of users is likely to have some professional organization (or informal social group). Many of them are also likely to have e-mail lists, as these communities often want to post jobs or ask specific questions of their peers.
Being able to join these will often require you to establish an “in” through the organizers of that group, which can be tricky, but the tradeoff is that you can unlock a whole community of specialized users.
This is where taking an ethnographic approach and getting some basic credentials can help. One of my colleagues, for example, volunteered at a hospice care organization to get a sense of the environment and be able to speak to users’ needs with confidence.
Professional organizations can always use volunteers, and establishing that you’re not just a random person who wants to spam e-mails but someone invested in the community can help you get access.
Lastly, what I talked about earlier, is the idea of social proof: being a member of a social community where people hang out can be helpful if you have a way to get into there.
Gathering users can be tricky
I know that it’s intimidating to do the legwork to talk with specialized users: I didn’t become a UX Designer to cold-email people, and I’ll admit it’s not my favorite part.
But it’s crucial to know your users, especially if you’re designing for a specialized audience. We know that it’s important not to understand the tasks users will do but the context and environment they work in.
So just focus on finding one person first and establishing an in. Doing so alleviates the stress of recruiting and can get you deeper and more engaged in their community.
Kai Wong is a Senior UX Designer, Design Writer, and author of the Data and Design newsletter. His new book, Data-informed UX Design, explains small changes you can make regarding data to improve your UX Design process.