The Carbon Five Guide to User Research: Recruiting Participants

Treyce Meredith ·

If you have ever tried to recruit folks for a focus group or usability test, you know it can be really hard, super frustrating, and downright discouraging. But have no fear, Carbon Five is here! Before you start reaching out, you’ve got to get into the right headspace. You will probably be interacting with people that come from diverse backgrounds, and there are some unusual places you can find ready willing and able participants for your research study. A few rules of thumb will help you successfully recruit:

  1. Be upbeat: Being energetic and positive is a great way to encourage people to spend their valuable time with you. You’re excited about your product so be excited that will encourage your recruits to be as just as excited as you.
  2. Be persistent: As a rule, if you don’t get a reply, always follow-up without becoming intrusive. Remember this is a high priority for you but a lower priority for them.
  3. Have resources (i.e. time and money): Remember how the offer of free pizza always made you show up to meetings in college? Compensation isn’t always in your control, but 50 bucks usually gets people to show up.
  4. Additionally, having a flexible schedule increases turnout: consider meeting people in the evenings or at unexpected locations convenient to them. Think of yourself as a journalist that has to get that story!

But, how do you find the right audience? That’s the eternal question after preparing to do research. ”Wait, how do I find 10 men between 40-70yrs who all suffer from chronic back pain and live in the Midwest?” So where should you start to search? Here are some of the most accessible options:


Cost: Free
Time + Effort: Medium
Best for: Niche communities

If you are open to doing some remote interviews, this is totally your place, particularly if you are researching something atypical. Reddit has communities for almost anything, and while it is known for trolls, there are actually lots and lots of passionate users in their communities.

I have a friend who was creating a diabetes tracking app, and was conducting, all of the user research and had never met anyone with diabetes. So he quickly joined a Reddit group and learned more than he could have ever expected. There was a large community excited to share with him. Without this type of input, he would have had a hard time understanding the problem at such a detailed level. The trick here is to find active Reddit communities since many Reddit communities are left for dead and do not have lots of active users.


Cost: Free
Time + Effort: Medium
Best for: “Average” customers

While it has a somewhat sketchy reputation, Craigslist is actually super useful. Quick posts can usually turn up one or two people. The trick I’ve learned here is to have a really good screener, as I have been in places where the person I was speaking was a fake and didn’t fit the criteria (check out these resources about making screeners). Try keeping a list of these fakers, so you know to ignore them the next time around. Another priority with Craigslist is to share how much money the participants will get or you will not get many replies. Generally, people looking through Craigslist are looking to make a quick buck, so be sure you are trying to appeal to that market.


Cost: Free
Time + Effort: High
Best for: Passionate brick & mortar customers

Unconventional I know, but think about it: people who are passionate enough to write a review will most likely want to vent more about an experience. I was recently conducting user research for a grocery store startup. All the interviews were from people who had reviewed them on Yelp. I actually then asked them to meet me in a competitor’s brick and mortar location. So they were able to give me contextual examples. Yelp’s users are passionate people so take advantage of it.

Cost: High
Time + Effort: Low
Best for: Ironing out big usability kinks

If you haven’t checked them out already, it’s worth a shot. While they are expensive, you can often get good results, but bear in mind this is only for user testing, not research. You can’t really do interviews, immersion studies, or any other type of user research on

I’ve often found the videos are brief and unsatisfying. I suggest ordering one test to try out and see your results before ordering multiple, that way you can add more specifically if needed.

Social Media

Cost: Low
Time + Effort: High
Best for: Friendly users for beta testing

While social media may seem like the best places to start but they can often turn up little to no results, and those that reply might be biased if they are in your community. While Social Media is great to recruit beta testers, it’s not as good at sourcing candidates for user research. If you are going to use Social Media, tho take everything I said about the sites above and apply it here. Also, here are some tips for each channel.

Facebook: Try searching through groups, there are groups for everything just like on Reddit. If you have a less specific user group try to join any Facebook groups with large numbers. One thing to note: you might get banned for posting nonrelated content in the group, so be sure to watch out there.

Twitter + Instagram: Hashtags are your best friend here, so make sure you use them. If you need to research people with triplets go on twitter and search #triplets you will get lots of results. Try to reach out to users that are hashtagging what you are looking for.

Your Own Site

Cost: Medium
Time + Effort: Medium
Best for: Collecting contact information

If you already have a product, fantastic!: you are way ahead of the pack. It’s worth putting a little design and development time into putting a form on your site to collect data and contact information of users. It’s the same process once you get their emails; be persistents, be persistent and offer incentives. A popular way of doing this is using MailChimp.

Friends & Family

Cost: Low
Time + Effort: Low
Best for: A fine place to start

You will hear some people discourage you from accessing your personal network, but if it’s between talking to your friends and family or no one at all then talking to lots of friends, it’s a good idea.

Also asking these people to reach out to their networks is great, don’t stick to one degree of separation. Widening your network through your friends and family means you can develop a remote relationship with them quickly because of your mutual contact. I often tell these participants what I am researching, and that I am not involved other than doing the research. Friends and family often sugar coat things, which is not what you want, and verbally separating yourself from work can help get more honest answers.

Street Testing

Cost: High
Time + Effort: High
Best for: Quick and dirty (and cheap!)

If you have the confidence, street testing is super fun! Intercepting people on the street is quick and easy. Often you need a good and concise sales pitch such as “try my dating app for five minutes for $10: doesn’t matter if you’re single, taken or something else.”

I was doing some research for a smartwatch startup, and they didn’t know how long to make the strap for an “average” male wrist size. After many meetings and Google searches, there was no clear answer. So we took 200 bucks and headed outside to ask if we could take the measurements ourselves. A few hours later we were out 200 dollars but equipped with all the data we needed. The trick here is to be outgoing, confident, and have cash also make your interaction snappy. The quicker, the better.

That’s all of our tips for recruiting users. Please let us know if you discover other recommendations. But most importantly: go forth and have fun finding some customers. Even though you may have a few people saying no, some people cancel, and you might have to start over a few times: you can do this. It’s hard, but it’s important. Coming up next – Interviewing.


If this all feels a little overwhelming, don’t despair! It gets easier with practice. But if you’re looking for a little more practice while you learn, Carbon Five offers a User Research Sprint that will teach you these skills hands-on and help you apply them to your product.