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5 Tips for Better Design Research Recruiting

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Apr 04 2019

As designers, it's our job to solve real problems for real people. To fulfill that mission, we first have to understand what is and isn't working well about a product, service, or even experience—anything from wearing a football helmet to paying a hospital bill to optimizing commutes.

This requires finding people who are willing to share personal stories that can inspire and inform us as we design solutions. We call this Design Research Recruiting.

It’s a process that requires great trust and great responsibility. We know that if people are willing to let us into their lives, our most important job is protecting their stories and confidentiality. And without speaking with the right people, we can’t do our jobs.

So how exactly do we do this? How do we get vulnerable people just like us—or totally unlike us—to open up their lives and even their homes to us? And how do we protect their confidentiality as we do it?

Successful design research recruiting is equal parts knowing who to speak with and how to reach them. Here are five practical tips for recruiting people for your very own design research interviews.

Make screening surveys real conversations

Screening surveys are a useful tool and an important first step in figuring out whether or not someone is a good fit for your project. But they aren’t always the best way to make someone feel comfortable talking about themselves.

I don’t want screening surveys to feel like a standardized test, so I make sure to structure them like a conversation. I dive straight into gathering stories and perspectives and save the typical stuff, like collecting email addresses, for later.

Ask one or two thoughtful, open-ended questions that get applicants thinking creatively about the topic at hand, such as, “What gets you excited or frustrated about your commute?” Or, “What are some key ways you take care of your health and wellness?” Questions like these make the survey feel more personal from the get-go, and they enable you to understand whether a potential interviewee has opinions or experiences that might benefit your research.

Get the word out on social

IDEO's Design Research Facebook page is our go-to channel for sharing our interview opportunities. People can follow the page and apply for interviews that interest them directly, or share research opportunities with their friends.

These "warm connections"—people who've been referred by friends who feel they'd be a good fit—are key to ensuring interesting and qualified people are signing up to share their stories. Cultivating a strong social media presence and making use of these platforms' built-in advertising tools are powerful ways to reach the right audience.

Give interviewees a preview of what's to come

An on-point questionnaire isn’t enough to ensure you’ve found the person to talk to. Hopping on the phone for a 10- to 15-minute phone chat is the finishing touch to ensure you've recruited articulate folks who are just the right fit. It also helps them have a better sense of your mission and what you’re looking for.

I start the conversation by giving participants an overview of IDEO and the project they've signed up for, then answering any questions they have. This establishes some trust and familiarity before I start asking more about them.

The phone call is also an important opportunity to make sure recruits feel comfortable with what's in store for them—it’s never our goal to just get them to talk to us; we want them to be comfortable sharing their lives, and to feel assured that their confidentiality will be protected.

Keep it confidential

We have to be certain the personal stories people share with us—which can sometimes include intimate details about their lives, like health struggles or the loss of a loved one—are kept confidential and used for design research purposes only, never for marketing or promotional uses. In fact, IDEO is so serious about it that we have a whole book dedicated to the practice.

When I’ve recruited folks to discuss potentially sensitive topics, like experiences getting emergency contraception, I make sure to reassure them that we’ll never share their information. I also send a copy of our consent and confidentiality form ahead of time for participants to review, so they can familiarize themselves with our privacy practices and ask questions ahead of the interview.

Prioritize quality, not quantity

When I first started as a design research recruiter, I was obsessed with hitting target interview numbers. If a team requested eight participants for a group discussion, I felt obligated to recruit exactly that amount. What I didn't grasp is that numbers don't count for much if the group isn't filled with thoughtful, articulate people who can participate meaningfully in a conversation. Worse, a group dynamic can be ruined by one person who hogs the conversation or creates an uncomfortable atmosphere.

The latter once happened during a group discussion on an intimate topic: personal lubricants. Because I wanted to hit the target number, I ended up recruiting someone I wasn’t sure would be a good fit. I figured that they'd be fine in a group setting, but they ended up making comments that made the other participants uncomfortable. The project lead ended up dismissing the participant early, and I learned a powerful lesson that it’s not about quantity. Giving yourself enough advance time to recruit will ensure that you have time to weed out anyone you feel skeptical about.

There are multitudes of interesting people with rich stories ready to delight, surprise, and most of all, inform you. I hope these tips will help you find them.

  • Sangeetha Santhanam

    Senior Design Research Coordinator, IDEO Palo Alto
    Sangeetha connects IDEO teams with inspiring people to interview for design research, from dog lovers to NASA astronauts to burlesque dancers. An avid word nerd, she can usually be found with a book in one hand and a cup of chai in the other.
  • Wenting Guo

    Design Lead, IDEO Cambridge
    Wenting is a Design Lead at IDEO Cambridge. With backgrounds in interaction design and industrial design, Wenting leads projects exploring the intersection of physical and digital.
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