Accessing the Right Research Participants with a Recruitment Agency

Find out why it's important to engage with appropriate research participants using examples from our work with GRIT Toronto

Katie Hill

‍At Connected, we believe that continuous discovery is the foundation for building better products. In the “Connecting with Research” series, our design research team reflects on what is important when conducting research, and how we learn from the people who our products are built for. Investigating and establishing industry best practices, each post dives deep into a different topic related to building a human-centred research practice. This post, co-written by Senior Design Researcher, Katie Hill, and Product Designer, Lisanne Binhammer, discusses the importance of engaging with appropriate research participants, drawing on examples from our recent work with GRIT Toronto.


At Connected, we are fortunate to partner with world-class organizations that are just as excited to take a human-centred approach to product development as we are. This includes our clients, but also the organizations that help us to take this approach in the first place: Recruitment Agencies. 

Recruitment Agencies connect us with the right people to learn from. We know that we – researchers and designers – are not representative of all the people who might use and benefit from the products we work on. Our deep knowledge of a product space means that we have certain biases that average users might not, and our personal backgrounds and behaviours can also make us the wrong audience for our own products. 

To avoid baking our own biases into our product concepts, we turn to Recruiting Agencies. The business of these agencies is to build a vast pool of thousands of diverse respondents in many different cities, so they can help researchers access people well beyond our personal networks. By partnering, we not only gain access to the right people to engage to help us come up with appropriate product concepts, but can also focus less on logistics and more on planning to ensure our research leads to the outcomes we need to move forward.

Prioritizing Empathy & Diversity

In the past, we’ve found that it can be a challenge to find a recruitment agency that values an empathetic research practice as much as we do. On a recent engagement, we partnered with GRIT (Gathering Residents to Improve Technology), a relatively new Toronto-based usability testing service to assist us with facilitating more inclusive and accessible user tests. GRIT isn’t a typical recruiter. The nonprofit is a program of Code for Canada and seeks to connect technology creators with a truly diverse and representative sample of users.

We asked GRIT to help us to find a wide range of participants who use digitally-enabled home services. We wanted to talk to a diverse set of individuals because we know that there are numerous cultural and circumstantial factors that underpin how people interact with technology in their homes. The GRIT mandate – connecting technology creators with diverse users and underrepresented communities – led us to believe that their team would appreciate our desire to be approachable and inclusive when conducting research into such an intimate yet universal space, the home.

We’re glad to report that we weren’t wrong. From the get-go, GRIT demonstrated an alignment with our human-centred approach. GRIT worked with us to ensure our recruitment criteria would remove, rather than create, barriers for potential research participants. Recruitment criteria usually deals with demographics; researchers often specify to recruiters that they want to talk to people within a certain age range, income bracket, or work situation. At Connected, we believe in engaging people based on behaviours. When we understand what people are doing or trying to do, we can identify common needs and build better for everyone. 

GRIT honoured and helped us bring this belief to life by taking the time to set up alignment calls to discuss research participants who met our criteria. This gave us more perspective into the behaviours of potential participants, and ultimately, allowed our team to identify the participants who were best equipped to talk about their experiences using digitally-enabled home services. We found that this rigorous screening process helped us to speak with people who were not only knowledgeable but passionate about the space as well.

Creating Comfort for Better Results

After selecting the right people, it was important for us to create the right type of environment. We wanted to establish a welcoming environment, allowing participants to feel comfortable opening up about their experiences. We know that when participants are in unfamiliar settings, they may become concerned over things like privacy, professionalism (especially when testing takes place in corporate offices), and even their personal safety and security. Doing our best to mitigate these concerns helps participants to focus and be more thoughtful about their answers and anecdotes, and ultimately to enjoy the experience of working with us.   

Technical constraints kept us from testing in spaces outside of our offices, so providing participants with a friendly face was especially important for putting them at ease. GRIT made sure that a familiar representative from their agency was available to greet research participants during the testing sessions – even those that were outside of typical working hours. The GRIT representative took a few minutes to go over compensation procedures, clarifying any lingering questions with the participant, before our research team offered refreshments and showed them to our testing space. 

What’s more, GRIT extended this accommodating approach when working with the needs of our research team. We had planned to conduct research with participants over the course of three weeks, with the second week acting as a break to adjust our approach as needed. GRIT typically facilitates back-to-back testing sessions but was open to taking on the logistical challenges of this way of working. As a result of GRIT’s flexibility, we were able to make iterative adjustments to the structure of our sessions – and were also able to easily find an alternative testing date for a participant with an unforeseen scheduling conflict. 

A Truly Human-Centred Approach

Ultimately, our partnership with GRIT helped our team to reach a broad spectrum of Torontonians who engage in similar behaviours and have similar goals. We were able to identify common problems and pain points from participants who represent a great diversity across ages, gender identities, ethnicities, education, income levels, and areas of the city. This enabled us to come to an informed understanding of what makes a good digital experience in the home for a broad base of people. 

At Connected, we know that the quality of our research data reflects the appropriateness of the participants that we engage. We need to ensure that the people we are conducting research with have deep experience in relation to our problem space or product. Just as important, however, is that we can enable them to feel comfortable talking about those experiences. 

Recruitment agencies provide the introduction that a research participant has to our work – making it important that the initial introduction is one that demonstrates empathy and understanding. As a company that puts caring for people at the center of our research practice, we were happy to work with GRIT to take a research approach that was truly human-centred.

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