You have written the screener, kicked off your recruit weeks before the study, you keep in regular communication with the recruiter and things seem to be going well. You are at the Friday before your study and you only have one slot to fill. Your recruiter is confident and you are feeling good!
Imagine your dismay when testing hits and participants begin dropping like flies. The flu has taken over and those participants who are showing up are less than desired. Participants lied about their background and aren’t eligible to participate. They can’t find a parking space so decided to just not come. All these unanticipated events can take a seemingly ‘easy’ recruit and turn it into a bit of a challenge.
What do you do when you find yourself short on participants?
Over recruit and backups
Okay, so this is a preventative option. Over recruit when possible to avoid coming up short. If you need to have 15 completed sessions, schedule at least 18 participants. Recruiters local to the area often have an idea of how many participants you will need to recruit in order to fill your quota.
On a recent study in Atlanta, the recruiter recommended we schedule 19 participants in order to get 15 completed sessions. Due to the location of the facility, traffic, and parking we experienced a high no-show rate and certainly would have missed our quota had we not over-recruited. Luckily, we were prepared and ended the study on target. Trust your recruiter’s expertise!
When filling the recruit, you could also consider scheduling backup participants, typically referred to as ‘floaters’, that come to the testing facility but do not partake in the session unless there is a no-show, or another participant is ineligible. This may be more difficult for populations that require a higher compensation, such as surgeons, but paying for an few extra participants could save you a lot of time and money in the long run if you end up not filling your quota.
Keep in constant communication with the recruiter
This may seem obvious, but your first step when you notice participants not showing up or filling requirements should be to keep in regular contact with the recruitment company. As recruiters try to fill the empty slots, ask for consistent updates. Try to get to the root of the issue to prevent it from happening in future studies.
Take a closer look at requirements
Now that you are in a bit of a bind, it may be beneficial to loosen some of the screening requirements. Consider lowering your age range or modifying any requirements on demographics, if possible.
On a recent study this approach proved invaluable at filling a recruit that had otherwise stalled. I’d been recruiting users for a new home comfort app, but the study had very narrow demographic criteria and was targeted exclusively at iPhone users. I knew that if we were able to open the recruit up to Android users, we would easily be able to meet our quota. I decided to have a follow-up conversation with my client to better understand why we couldn’t recruit Android users. During our discussion he disclosed that the app would be released on Android shortly following the iPhone release and agreed to open the recruit to Android users which solved our problem.
Engage new resources
There is no shame in reaching out to more recruiters if you are finding the original company just isn’t getting the job done. Engage new resources as early as possible and let them know that you might need some help filling the slots. You can likely pay the recruiter per each session they fill.
If appropriate, ask participants if they know anyone that would be interested in participating in the study. Earlier this year, I was working on a study that targeted specialty pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. During the week of fieldwork, participants started dropping due to conflicts. My client originally asked that we only recruit a certain number of participants from the same workplace, but once we found ourselves in a bind, they released that requirement. After a session, when escorting participants from the testing room, we asked them to reach out to colleagues to see if they would be interested in participating in the study. By the end of the week, we reached our quota thanks in part to their referrals. Just remember to remind participants to keep the contents of the study confidential if they signed an NDA.
Coworkers may also be able to cast a net to friends or acquaintances to see if anyone qualifies to participate in the study. Reach out to them to see if they can lend a hand!
Extend testing hours
Testing often occurs during regular working hours of 9-5. If participants are being recruited on short notice, these hours may not work for them. Consider adding in evening sessions to create more opportunities for participation.
A little more money can make a world of difference. Give participants incentive to take part in the study!
Remember, occasionally losing a few participants is an unavoidable part of doing user research: what matters most is how we respond to such situations. Recognition of what is happening along with rapid corrective action can pull a study back from the brink and help you fulfill your research goals!