How to recruit participants for design research - a cheatsheet

Recruiting participants is one of the first steps for design research activities such as user interviews, usability tests, and contextual inquiry, but it's one often shrouded in mystery. How do you find strangers who are willing to talk to you and your team? How do you find the right strangers to talk to you and your team? 

This is a topic we cover in our workshops, and it's one that I always get questions about. Recently, I put together this cheatsheet to answer some of the most common questions.



(guidelines from Nielsen Norman Group)

  • For Usability Tests + Preliminary User Research:  Start with 5.  Testing 5 users will uncover 80% of usability problems.
  • If you want to prove Statistical Significance:  at least 20. ( Tight confidence intervals require more users.)
  • Card sorting: at least 15.
  • Eye tracking: at least 39 users if you want stable heat maps.
  • Personae: 5-7 users per segment.

WHO DO WE RECRUIT? A representative sample!

For demographic data - start with and the American Community Survey. (Or, ask a Librarian! Multnomah County Library Reference line- 503.988.5123)

  • Do not recruit friends, family members, co-workers, or people you are romantically involved with. Seek at least two degrees of separation: friends-of-friends are fine. Your brother is not a good participant, but your brother's friend's neighbor might be. 
  • Seek ethnic and gender representation in accordance with local/industry demographics - prioritize participants from underindexed groups.
  • Participants who have NOT participated in a focus group, usability test, or other design/market research in the past six months.
  • Unless industry specific: Participants (and other members of household) who do not work in technology, design, or industry vertical related to product.
  • Age: Seek age group representation (I try to always include a user over 60).
  • Income: seek representation across income groups, meaning most participants should be at or below local median household income. (Median Family Income in Portland, 2017: $77,208 )
  • Languages spoken at home: 25% of US households speak a language other than English at home.
  • Ability/Accessibility: seek a representative sample of abilities, including visual, motor and cognitive abilities. 


  • Facebook groups (Amelia’s current favorite)
  • Community organizations (and their organizers).
  • Well-connected friends
  • Professional Recruiters ($200-500 per participant)

Have fun, and keep in touch! Download our free PDF workbook here.