Conducting inclusive user research is a critical part of making government services easier to use and accessible to the greatest number of people. But recruiting people who share a particular characteristic — such as membership in underserved and marginalized communities, permanent or temporary disabilities, or barriers to participation — isn’t always straightforward.
Here are three things government agencies need to anticipate when recruiting diverse populations for their UX research:
- Recruiting can be resource intensive - plan accordingly.
- Transparency and a warm introduction can help build trust.
- Don’t be afraid to get creative about outreach and data collection.
The More Specific Your Requirements Are, the More Time and Resources You Should Expect to Invest
In an ideal world, you could send an email to your organization’s general mailing list requesting participants for a short survey and receive prompt, enthusiastic replies from a respondent pool that perfectly mirrors the customer groups you hoped to speak with. In reality, user recruitment may not be that easy. Discovering where, when, and how best to approach each of the groups you’re interested in surveying can require some upfront effort.
A good first step is to meet potential volunteers where they already spend time (which, alas, probably doesn’t include your monthly newsletter). For instance, if you wanted to study people in their seventies and eighties, you might reach out to retirement communities and senior centers. Keep in mind, even if you think you already know where your potential participants hang out, it’s worth speaking with subject matter experts and doing some research to confirm your assumptions before you dive into recruiting.
The Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) serves agricultural industry stakeholders in Washington. Last year, they hired Anthro-Tech to learn how they could better connect farmers and growers looking for workers with agricultural workers seeking employment.
The same factors that make it difficult for job seekers to connect with employers - like demanding schedules, seasonal travel for work, language barriers, or lack of transportation, to name a few - can make it tricky to recruit agricultural workers for a UX study. So, we reached out to researchers, NGOs, and Migrant Farm Worker Outreach Specialists at ESD’s field offices across the state to learn where and how best to reach farm workers. We learned that word of mouth, physical fliers, and partnering with NGOs were effective ways to connect with farm workers. We also conducted on-the-spot recruiting at farms and other job sites, often quite literally conducting “field” research.
Generally speaking, the more specific the group you’d like to reach - for instance, low-literacy job seekers or undocumented workers applying for rental assistance - the more time and resources it will take to identify and recruit the right people.
In the end, recruiting customers who share very specific or rare characteristics comes down to time, budget, and good old fashioned elbow grease. That said, there are several things you can do that will increase the likelihood that people agree to participate. Which brings us to point two…
When Recruiting Diverse Populations, It Pays to Have a Warm Introduction
In our experience, people are more likely to participate in UX research when someone they already know passes along the request. One method for garnering warm introductions is to approach community groups and NGOs, explain your work and discuss how it might benefit their community. Because of their deep knowledge of the communities they serve, these groups can help you identify and reach out to potential volunteers. They can also assist you in framing what you’re asking participants to do and advise you on the best ways to communicate with them.
Another effective outreach method is snowball sampling, where you ask the people you’ve already recruited whether they know anyone else who might be interested in participating. While snowball sampling is an effective method for recruiting participants, it can potentially bias the sample, so we typically only use it when other methods of recruitment aren't feasible.
Be Up Front with Potential Volunteers, Explaining:
- What you’re asking them to do and why
- Any potential benefits or risks to participation
- What information will be used and how
- How you will protect their privacy
If possible, invite volunteers into the process so that they can help shape the research and are invested in the outcome. This is the basis of both human-centered design and participatory action research, and can help people feel more willing to take part in your research.
Consider hiring an outside partner to conduct the recruitment and research if you think potential participants may be wary about speaking with your organization.
Your Methodology Should Account For Potential Barriers to Participation
When conducting outreach for your UX study, be aware that there are factors that may make it difficult for certain groups to take part in user-centered research. Often, these are the same factors that make it difficult for potential volunteers to use your organization’s products and services in the first place. These obstacles can include:
- Language barriers
- Low literacy or low digital literacy
- Living in a remote location
- A temporary or permanent disability
- Demands on their time, such as full-time care-giving or working multiple jobs
- Not self-identifying as part of the group you’re looking to study
- Research that touches on a potentially sensitive topic, like substance abuse or mental health
Once you’ve identified possible obstacles, you can adjust your research methods to make it easier or more comfortable for your volunteers to participate. This can include things like:
- Using a translator
- Conducting research remotely or asynchronously
- Enabling alternate methods for data collection, e.g., written instead of verbal, phone instead of Zoom
- Letting people with disabilities participate from home, where they may have easier access to assistive technologies
- Allowing people to conduct interviews with their cameras off
- Using a variety of flexible contact/communication methods to coordinate with potential participants (in-person, phone, text, email, etc.)
In a nutshell, be sensitive to the needs and considerations of the people you’re approaching. Not exactly sure what to account for? Your NGO and community partners can help provide context and guidance.