YOUR LIBRARY NEEDS YOU! (UX research recruitment tips)

UX research is amazing. In fact, done right it can be game-changing. But all too often it is stopped in its tracks or doesn’t get started because of something entirely practical: failure to recruit research participants.

The scale of the problem was brought home to me when Matt Borg and I got in touch with those people who had attended the first UX in Libraries conference and we discovered that back at their home institutions most of them were struggling to secure research participants. This finding directly informed the UXLibsII team challenge for which a third of teams were tasked to pitch ideas to address the problem. We didn’t solve UX recruitment that day in Manchester by any means but the key issues were certainly given a good airing.

The main questions that I have been asked on the topic as I travel around UX training and consulting are as follows:

– do you recruit in advance or ad hoc?
– if the former, how do you get them to turn up?
– how do you recruit beyond library?
– what incentives are required?
– is it easier to recruit certain types of users?

I hope to answer these questions through the remainder of this post.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a librarian in possession of a library user – attending something when they said they would – is a very rare thing indeed. Recruiting in advance for UX research is a tough prospect, in fact almost as hard as recruiting for library training sessions. However there are several things you can do to make them more likely to turn up…

Face-to-face verbal contracts.
Firstly you need to meet the person in question beforehand, explain why you need them, why they are important to you and emphasise how they will be helping you. As Dale Carnegie observed, people are predisposed to do others a favour when asked to do so, so couching the research in these terms is a must. Never rely on emails from prospective participants that tell you they will attend, you will be lucky to get a quarter of them in the end. This isn’t because these people are lazy, mean or disorganised. They could be of course, particularly the latter, but it is far more likely that when they said yes they genuinely thought they would be able to attend, but then essays, rearranged classes, friends, er… life, got in the way. That is why the face-to-face contact, and therefore a verbal contract, is so important.

Hit the shoe-leather.
You may be sat there thinking that’s crazy – meeting each person in advance – but I can promise you that this time investment will be well worth it, particularly if participants are required for something as in-depth as a workshop, a long semi-structured interview or a diary study. You should be putting far more effort into recruitment than sending all-student emails, designing posters or flyers, or composing clever tweets. In fact, I’d advise that you don’t do any of those things and instead spend that (usually completely wasted) design time walking the library and beyond.

Recruit later than feels safe.
Another classic mistake is recruiting too early. In the case of students, cast your mind back to your time at University and just reflect on how ad hoc it all was, suddenly off to the pub, or to play sport, or to grab coffee. If you recruit too early you are far more likely to be frustrated by something new cropping up and getting in the way. Of course recruiting too early can also prompt people to forget the thing altogether as well. So recruit as late as you can bear – two days or one day before. It will feel risky but the chances are you will attract a far greater number of attendees. I once successfully recruited 80 students for a mass LEGO Serious Play workshop a week before the event and I was feeling a little smug. Three days on when I checked by email if they could still come, 65 replied to say sorry, but no. 65! I had to recruit virtually from scratch, but managed to secure the required 80 over the last day and a half. We librarians love to be ready in advance, for many of us it’s part of our DNA, but we have to let that go when it comes to research recruitment.

Document it.
Another trick I’ve used is to supply a brief document to the participant which details in writing their agreed attendance, the terms of the research, the venue and the start time. It’s much harder for people to go against the written word when those words are in a document other than email. It feels official. ‘Someone has taken time just on me’ they think and once again you have more of a contract with them.

Call in favours.
Going back to recruiting face-to-face briefly, I suggest that concurrent to your own activities you engage other staff to help you do this on your behalf. Staff who owe you a favour and in turn students who maybe owe them a favour. Don’t go it alone if there’s the possibility of collaborative recruitment. But make sure you brief the staff member on the importance of having a proper conversation with the potential recruit in question. Remember though that this route will most likely turn up more library users than non-users, and of course you need both.

Go ad hoc.
Unless you need a recruit for something which requires some time investment – say an hour or more – then I always recommend recruiting ad hoc, there and then, inside or outside of the library. You will get the people you need and fairly quickly.

Beyond the library.
I’m often asked how to recruit beyond the library and the simple answer is that you physically need to go beyond the library to those places where those people who never visit the physical library hang out. There is a huge mental barrier to doing this. Huge. It doesn’t feel safe. It doesn’t feel normal. And it’s much easier just to try other ways of reaching these people, perhaps via email, or the Students’ Union, in fact anything that might mean you don’t have to contemplate leaving the safe environs of the library behind. Of course it’s crucial that your UX research explores the wider environment of the user and how the library may or may not fit into that big picture, and spending time outside of the library will always assist you with understanding and appreciating that in more detail. You will notice things – behaviours, activities, possibilities – that you would just not be exposed to otherwise.

Worst that can happen.
A fear that I read in many library staff is the sheer unbridled terror as to how someone might react to being asked in person to help with UX research. This fear is never proportional to the actual reaction you will get. The worst that will happen is that the person in question will say No. Perhaps even a grumpy No. But quite often people will say Yes. You will be surprised how often as well. I promise you. I still keep my hand in with user research on UX fieldwork days at institutions and I’m still surprised by how many people are willing to help out. You probably won’t ever banish the fear totally, but certainly the more you recruit in-person the more you will learn to put these unfounded fears in perspective.

Recruit busy-looking people.
Just as in life you go to a busy person to get something done, the same is true when recruiting UX participants. Don’t cast around for people who look like they have time on their hands, seek out those people who look like they shouldn’t be disturbed. It’s completely counter-intuitive but I promise you these busy-looking organised people are more likely to say yes than no.

When to recruit.
Whenever and wherever I have conducted UX research someone has said that it’s the wrong time of year: ‘there aren’t enough students around’; ‘there are too many students around’; ‘it’s not a representative time’; ‘you can’t disturb users at this time.’ Whatever they say, ignore them and do the research anyway. Yes you would ideally like to conduct the research at different times in order to establish trends around different terms/semesters, but whatever time of year it is you will learn some valuable things, you will discover previously undiscovered behaviours, and gather actionable insights. Don’t wait for the perfect time. There isn’t one.

What about incentives?
Incentives really muddy the water. Personally I have railed between £30 reward and offering nothing and everything in between. Some people will refuse to participate unless they are financially remunerated; others will strongly refuse payment. Incentives truly are a polarising element of the UX research process for staff as much as users. I’ve had to arbitrate arguments around incentive policies more than once in my career. So where do I generally stand? Well it depends on the project. For a start-off I always call them ‘thank yous’ rather than incentives – this sets the right tone. We should not really be incentivising – which implies affecting motivation and using our powers of persuasion – but thanking people for the time they hopefully give us without too much inducement or skewing. I also think it’s important that for anything beyond an hour these ‘thank yous’ are detailed from the outset. That’s courtesy for the time they are potentially giving. However I’d be wary of offering too much. Partly because it might skew involvement but also because quite simply you might not need to spend as much as you think. On one memorable project several participants refused the financial thank you of £25 despite the fact that they had spent two weeks of their time helping me (albeit only 15 minutes a day). Their reasoning was that they had enjoyed the project so much that they didn’t feel that they needed the reward. The moral here is don’t mistake how much people may want to help you without the need for reward. We’re back in Dale Carnegie territory. You still offer the thank you but you may not end up parting with it. As a rule of thumb I’d say £10 for an hour, going up to about £15 for 2 hours. And for greater time commitment than that (e.g. for a research project over a period of a week or two with task required each day, or every other day) between £20 and £30 (or dollar equivalents). As to what the thank you should actually be, I’m noting an increased preference for cold hard cash over vouchers, the exception being restaurant vouchers which always seem to go down well with students. Students the world over are always after free food!

Recruitment stereotyping.
Arts students are more comfortable writing love or break-up letters to library services than Science students. And unlike Art students, Science students don’t like talking about how they feel about services. So run two standard clichés about users that I regularly seek to dispel. They may sound plausible but they’re nonsense and are the same pernicious and sweeping generalisations that have led Higher Education to accept Digital Natives and Millennials as a real thing. Just as they are lazy unhelpful limiting constructs, so too is the belief that any group of people will behave in a particular way. For me UX research is all about discovering how unique and different we all are and seeking information about that rich individualism. Yes trends may emerge from certain groups once we begin researching, but if we can possibly help it we must not second-guess or predetermine such patterns from the outset based on our assumptions. People are people and that means complexity and contradiction at every turn, and our approach to recruitment and the techniques we choose should allow this to be the case.

Recruitment is never going to be easy but I do believe there’s more we can do to make it easier for ourselves and I think it boils down to a few key things:

– Getting over irrational fears of approaching people
– Recruiting later rather than earlier
– Seeking ad hoc recruits as much as recruiting in advance
– Dropping time-consuming promotional activities that rarely result in recruits
– Getting out and about, away from your PC and the library

Good luck!


(Featured image: Flickr Creative Commons ‘Come on pal – enlist‘ – Henry R. Eveleigh. Library and Archives Canada, C-087427)

4 thoughts on “YOUR LIBRARY NEEDS YOU! (UX research recruitment tips)

  1. brianholda says:

    Great articles! Do you run into institutional roadblocks with giving “cold, hard cash”? I’m not sure our higher ed institution would go for that, but I like the concept.


  2. Vernon Fowler says:

    I must give busy people a try. I am still wary of busy people during formal exam times though.

    We now have a tiered structure of thank yous similar to what you’ve described. Up to 30 minutes => $5 cafe voucher; 30-60 minutes => $10 cafe voucher; 1-2 hours => $20 cafe voucher. Yes, food and drink is a winner. These amounts must be in participants “not too much” range because our no-show rate is much lower than you’ve indicated. From several studies when the thank you was $20, 27 attended versus 2 no-shows. Maybe these 2 needed the social contract of face-to-face recruitment!


    1. Andy Priestner says:

      Yes some wariness about busy people in exam times, but even then I’ve been surprised. People need interesting breaks and have more capacity and need for them than we think. Great to hear you actually have a clear tiered process. Go Vernon. Go Deakin!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s