Whether you are figuring out what features to build for a website, a design for a wheelchair for use in rural Africa, or a new program for a nonprofit, interviewing people who would be likely users of your system is critical to a successful project; in order to create something that solves a problem for people, you first have to understand what they need.
Even if you're not officially a designer, you can steal ideas from the design world to help solve whatever problems you face. This post is part of a series from experts on different tools in the design process. Here, learn about recruiting participants for interviews—surprisingly difficult to get right, if you've ever done it. The post was adapted from a presentation at Catapult Labs, an event from Catapult Design.
Whether you are figuring out what features to build for a website, a design for a wheelchair for use in rural Africa, or a new program for a nonprofit, interviewing people who would be likely users of your system is critical to a successful project; in order to create something that solves a problem for people, you first have to understand what they need. How to run interviews is a topic for another day, but let’s start with the first step: recruiting the people you’ll be interviewing.
There are three main steps to recruiting participants:
1. Write a list of criteria: who you want to talk to and who you want to exclude.
Demographic labels such as "women, ages 5-35" or "tech-savvy" aren’t specific enough to capture what's interesting about people. Instead, how about "mothers with at least one child under the age of two" or "people who bought something online in the past month"? Think of behaviors that are relevant to your project. For example, "people who use the internet at least 20 hours a week" or "people who use public transportation to get to work."
2. Consider where you’ll look for these people as early as possible.
If the behavior and what you are building is online, plan to post your recruiting questionnaire online where people gather like Facebook, Twitter, G+, Craigslist, or related forums. If the behaviors are mostly offline, go to likely places where you might find these people. Looking for healthy shoppers? Consider recruiting at a farmer’s market. If you're looking for people who can’t afford a computer, partner with an organization helping lower income folks with technology.
3. Write your recruiting questionnaire or "screener" by turning each of your criteria from step one into questions.
Keep your screener as short as possible so the greatest number of people can get through it and you get the widest possible choice of participants to interview. But make it long enough to ask what you need. You can ask follow-up questions when you confirm their participation in the user research. Ask mostly closed-ended questions, giving respondents choices to pick from. Open-ended questions make it harder for people to get through a questionnaire, and you'll have time to follow up with more detailed questions once the research begins.
Ask questions people can answer. Don't ask how many times someone has brushed their teeth in the past year (who knows?), though asking about the past day or week works. In "How often do you..." type questions, always include a timeframe that's appropriate to the activity.
Avoid yes/no questions, which make it easy to game your screener as it's obvious what you're looking for. Instead of “Do you like chocolate ice cream?” ask “Which is your favorite flavor of ice cream?” and give multiple choices. You don't want to end up with people who just wanted to be chosen for the study, and don't really have the qualities you need.
If you can, pilot test the screener with a potential participant to make sure that your questions are understood the way you meant, since in the real recruiting you won’t be there to clarify. I can guarantee you respondents will interpret things differently than you intend.
You’ll be surprised by what you learn from your participants, and the first step to meeting them is writing a screener. Happy recruiting!
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