Feb 26, 2024

Your Guide to Research Recruitment Methods Pros and Cons

Over my career, I’ve managed recruits for 100s of participants over the course of 65+ projects. In this post, I’m sharing four ways to find research participants, pros and cons, and my personal perspective on each.

P.S. Made Manifest has made an on demand course where we share our exact process, tools and templates for saving time and money when recruiting for design research. See here for more info!

Cluttered desk with a computer, zoom meeting on screen, hands taking notes in a notebook

Q. How do you find people to participate in design research?

Quality design research relies on talking to the right people - people who have experience with the service or product you are researching, or who do a certain behaviour or care about a certain thing. So how do you find those people, especially within the timeline and budget constraints of your project?

Let’s break down four common approaches to recruitment for design research studies.

1. Recruiting Service (traditional market research recruitment)

What it is: Traditional market research recruitment firms have large databases of people who have consented to be contacted for research studies. The design team defines participant criteria and writes a screening questionnaire. The market research firm then reaches out to the database to find people who are a fit and schedule them for research sessions. This is often done over the phone, with a recruiter asking the potential participant the screening questions.

(I’ve noticed more and more these firms rely on screening surveys sent via email, rather than phone calls. In some cases, they may do both - an initial screening survey via email followed by a phone call.)

Example: On a project exploring what it was like for grocery retailers to get set up with an online marketplace platform, we worked with a specialized B2B recruiter to reach retailers of a certain size who had been through this process.


  • Outsource the work of recruiting, which ideally saves the design team time.
  • Broad reach for example if you want to find people across Canada or a big demographic mix.
  • Gets around legal and consent issues as the third-party recruiter is responsible for compliance with contact laws etc.


  • Can be pricey - you typically pay a project management fee and a fee per recruit, as well as an ‘incentive handling fee’ if you want the recruiter to handle paying the incentives.
  • With this method, you may encounter ‘professional participants’ who participate in many studies and try to game getting past the screener.
  • Quality of participants varies - in my experience, with this approach, you often end up with participants who don’t match your needs, due to misinterpretation of the screener, the recruiter not fully understanding what you are looking for, and the monetary incentive for the recruiter to get ‘butts in seats’.

My POV: To be honest, I often find this approach more hassle than it’s worth for the quality of participants. I’m almost always disappointed with the experience. There are inevitably scheduling snafus, rushes to complete the recruit within the timelines no matter how early you start, and the need to loosen criteria as you go. I also find writing these types of screeners super tedious and overly focused on demographics.

It can work reasonably well, especially in corporate contexts, where organizations are sensitive to compliance and legal issues and prefer to outsource recruitment. It does also take some of the work and time off of the researchers’ plate, however, I find to get good results you need to manage the recruitment closely.

2. Online Recruitment Service (e.g. Ethnio, UserZoom, DScout, etc)

What it is: Online recruitment platforms are similar to traditional recruitment, but rather than old school recruiters dialling massive lists, they have everything online. The process is generally the same but cuts out the middle person of the recruiter - meaning design teams manage the recruit via the online platform, creating screeners and accessing the pool of participants.

Example: For a journey research project on life insurance, we looked into using one of the online platforms to recruit. However, we ended up using a traditional market research recruitment approach as the online platform gave us feedback that our recruitment criteria and screener was too granular for their participant pool.


  • Can be more cost-effective than a market research recruiter.
  • Some platforms integrate everything in one place - e.g. recruit, schedule, incentive handling.
  • Efficiency - streamlines the recruitment process and can allow you to recruit comparatively quickly (days for online recruit versus weeks for a traditional recruitment firm).
  • Wide, global pools of participants (depending on the specific platform/service).


  • Can be difficult to recruit against highly specific or granular criteria.
  • Variable quality of participant.
  • Pools skew towards digitally literate folks.
  • Design team may need to spend additional time screening or ensuring fit.

My POV: Full disclosure, I've only ended up using these services a handful of times. In my experience, they can work well for more generalized criteria (people who listen to music daily) than granular criteria (people who have bought life insurance in the last 6 months).

3. Network or Open Recruiting

What it is: Network recruiting relies on personal, business, or online networks to reach out to potential participants. For example, you might post on LinkedIn or send an email to a marketing email list and invite people to complete a screening survey. Open recruiting is when you try to reach people through things like posting on craigslist or public notice boards - casting a wide net to try to reach people. Another network recruiting approach is to collaborate with groups who have a relationship with the people you are trying to reach - for example working with advocacy groups when looking for participants on an accessibility project.  

For example: We wanted to interview members of a fashion incubator’s community. We reached out to their email list with an invitation to participate in our research and a booking link to sign up for a slot.


  • Can directly reach suitable participants via customer lists or databases, eliminating the 'needle in a haystack' effect of other approaches.
  • One of the most cost-effective ways to recruit as you don't have to pay a service or platform.
  • Allows design team high levels of control over the recruit.
  • Fast, depending on how niche your participant criteria are.


  • Biases the sample to a certain reach within your network.
  • Time-consuming as the design team directly manages the recruit.
  • Compliance and legal is not outsourced.

My POV: I really like network/open recruits, and we use this approach on a lot of Made Manifest projects. I find it allows us more granular control over the recruiting process and cuts out a lot of back and forth with a recruiting firm. These work especially well when our client already has an email list or customer database we can reach out to. This approach does create admin and work for the design team, but there are ways to streamline the effort. Getting creative with where you post can also widen the reach of this approach (for example we’ve used the bartering platform Bunz, or you can post on your grocery store notice board).

4. Intercept Recruiting

What it is: Intercept recruiting relies on ‘intercepting’ people in the natural environment of the use of a product or service. This can happen online through a ‘pop-up’ window that invites people to participate in research, or in the real world, for example recruiting grocery shoppers by approaching them in the grocery store. Intercept recruiting can be used to do shorter research in the moment, or as a way to find people to book for longer sessions later.  

For example: On a project to design a new airline loyalty program, we approached people in the airport lounge and invited them to do 15-minute tests of our prototypes.


  • Engages people in the natural context of use, which adds richness to your research.
  • Cheap and immediate - you can quickly get feedback in a few hours.
  • Great way to find people doing a behaviour rather than relying on self-reporting or screening.


  • Tricky to do longer research sessions ‘on the spot’.
  • Hard to control and screen for specific criteria.
  • People may not like being approached, and researchers may not like approaching people.

Two researchers standing behind a stack of cardboard boxed with posters reading 'help us design a better grafton quarter' in Dublin. Each researcher is talking to a member of the public.

My POV: intercept recruiting has the massive advantage of being in context, which makes research richer. I love pairing this approach with others, or using it to have an initial conversation with people and then invite them to further research. The biggest challenge is approaching and engaging people in a way that is comfortable for them and the research team.

Linn Vizard
Made Manifest Founder. I ❤ glitter, cats, and deadlifting

Does your organization need help with an experience or internal process?