No matter how much thought is put into the other aspects of user testing, or how well-executed they are, the data you get won’t be useful if it isn’t coming from your desired user base.

But getting hold of the right users to test your product isn’t always straightforward. Dedicated recruitment firms exist that will screen and recruit participants for user testing, as well as offering research facilities and recording audio and video – but all of this comes at a cost, and outsourcing your recruitment isn’t always effective when you have a niche demographic in mind.

Assuming that you don’t already have access to an existing pool of users to conduct testing, how can you go about recruiting participants to fit a very specific profile without going through an agency? Here are five methods that you can use.

1. Through clients

If you work for a design consultancy or studio, or as part of a shared services team within a larger company, you might find yourself working to a specific brief for user testing without easy access to relevant participants.

For example, if a furniture manufacturing company has designed a product to optimise the supply chain for furniture sellers, the easiest way to access relevant participants would be through the client and the companies that they work with. As an added bonus, this can help to make client stakeholders feel involved in the UX testing process.

The best way to approach this type of recruitment is to work closely with the client to identify the right end users for testing, and clearly communicate what your requirements are in terms of role, quantity, and anything that will qualify or disqualify a user from taking part. You can also help them to develop a message that will be used for outreach, explaining what is involved in the research and how long it might be expected to take, as well as an incentive (if one is being offered).

There can be an element of uncertainty to using this method if the client doesn’t screen effectively or miscommunicates the purpose of the research, but overall it can be one of the best ways to recruit a particular user demographic that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

2. Via online communities

Online communities can be an excellent place to source users who share a particular demographic trait, such as a shared hobby (like fishing, or mountain biking), a life status (single people, say, or new parents) or even a health condition (like dementia, or a chronic illness).

It’s probably best to seek permission from the community moderator(s) before posting this kind of request, as a courtesy, and because they can help you to determine whether it’s appropriate for the community. They may even be able to help you signal-boost your request via other relevant channels or identify good prospective candidates for taking part.

Due to the global nature of online communities, the main downside of this will be that not all of your prospective participants will be in the right geographic area if you need them to come to a lab for testing in person. However, it’s still a very strong option for putting the word out among users who are part of a highly specific target demographic.

Illustration of a magnet pulling three people towards it.

3. Using an online service

While recruitment firms aren’t always able to source members of a very niche group for user testing, their online equivalents might be. One well-known UK-based service is People for Research, a specialist market research and user testing website that offers very targeted demographic requirements – it also offers international recruitment if you aren’t based in the UK (or if you have a global target audience).

Some online services that aren’t specifically geared towards user testing but will allow you to find prospective participants include Craigslist, Gumtree, and Amazon’s crowdsourced marketplace, Mechanical Turk .

Additionally, many user testing platforms such as UserZoom, Optimal Workshop, UserTesting and Survey Gizmo offer integrated recruitment panels where you can order participants that fit various demographic criteria directly within your research platform. If you’re already using one of these platforms – or considering using one – for your research, you can take advantage of this added functionality to recruit participants.

4. At events

Events and conferences are the in-person equivalent of online communities: a place where people who share a particular interest or demographic gather to discuss or hear about that topic. Thus, events are a good option for recruiting panel participants from your target demographic, particularly if you need to recruit users for in-person testing.

If you plan ahead, you may even be able to conduct testing at the event itself. If the organisers are willing to provide you with the contact information of attendees (and a space for testing), you can reach out to them ahead of time to gauge their interest in participating and schedule a time to meet during the event.

This can be even easier if the event is one that is run by your own company or a client. Even if it isn’t, a good tactic can be to find an event where a colleague is either presenting a talk – which may allow you to pitch at the end of it – or has a booth set up, giving you a location to set up shop and a way to talk to attendees.

Failing that, recruiting attendees on the spot at an event is still an option – particularly if you have a free gift or some kind of incentive to offer them in return.

Econsultancy events

5. Via social media

Social media can be useful for both broad-brush and targeted participant recruiting. If you don’t have a particularly specific demographic in mind, asking people to share the call for participants on social media can be a good way to reach a wider audience. This is mostly a good method if you’re simply trying to get the word out and don’t really mind who answers.

However, social media is also a good option if you are trying to reach a niche audience. If you’re aiming to recruit a certain type of professional or practitioner, consider carrying out a search on LinkedIn and messaging potential participants.

Browsing Facebook Groups is an alternative option to the online community approach, with the bonus that some of these groups might be locally based. (For that matter, Meetup can also help you to find hobbyist groups who meet in a certain location). You might also have some luck browsing hashtags relevant to your target niche, although this is likely to involve a lot of legwork for relatively little return.

Finally, if you have the budget for it, you can use social media to post very highly-targeted ads for participants. LinkedIn offers paid advertising by job title, function, and industry, and Facebook is notorious for offering extremely granular targeting for all kinds of demographics.

The main downsides to this method for recruiting participants are the cost involved, and the likelihood of drop-outs. As a general user testing best practice you should recruit additional participants to cover the possibility that some will drop out, but there is a higher risk of this through some channels than others.