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Get things right from the beginning with equitable research recruitment

By Shaun Mosley and Lisa Spitz

User research helps you engage the people who will use the service you’re building. Ideally, you get valuable insights and feedback throughout your process, increasing the likelihood that you’ll build something that truly meets peoples’ needs. But, there’s a common pitfall to consider when conducting user research — equitable recruitment.

Because programs are often running on tight timelines and budgets, research can be plagued by participant selection bias. Research is conducted with the people who are easiest to reach instead of those who are essential to the success of a service. Taking the time to recruit equitably ensures your research is truly meaningful. It can reveal new opportunities for your program or service strategy and help you identify key voices who can add credibility once you’re rolling out the program. Ultimately, equitable recruitment helps you meet the needs of all the people you’re hoping to serve.

Equitable recruitment means you’ll probably have to go outside of your comfort zone to engage with a wide range of communities, including people you may not have considered before. Equity looks different in different places and in different services, so there’s no hard-and-fast set of guidelines for states and organizations to follow. But there are some key things to consider when implementing equitable recruitment practices in your organization.

Get support from your leadership

Building equity into your processes means things will take longer and require more resources. You’ll probably engage more people than you typically would. You may have to budget for translation to reach people who don’t speak English. You’ll need to do more analysis along the way to make sure your work is actually equitable. Stakeholders need to understand the value of this work and support it with the time and resources necessary early on.

Without genuine support from leadership, striving for equitable outcomes becomes nearly impossible. Building equity requires long-term and recurring investment. If you need to win over leaders, then highlight that equitable research recruitment:

  • Improves accessibility
  • Ensures your services reach all eligible constituents
  • Exposes unexpected barriers sooner and is more cost-effective

Know what success looks like to you

Because equity looks different in different places and within different services, you and your organization need to define what success looks like to you. Who is your service designed to serve? How do the demographics of that group compare to the demographics of the people who are readily available to you? Look to census and other public data sources to validate who your service should serve. Also, ensure that you consider identities that aren’t included in existing data. For example, gender data is often limited to male and female options. So if we relied on the data alone, we would exclude gender non-binary folks. Equitable recruiting must include people who historically haven’t been included.

After you’ve defined your goal, you have to get specific about the criteria that needs to be tracked. For us, we ask research applicants for their race, gender, income, age, and education levels, and strive for a mix of participants that represents the communities we serve. With that information, we monitor overall trends in a table we refer to as a Participant Matrix. The Participant Matrix shows us who we have spoken to. So when we reflect on how equitable our efforts have been, the Participant Matrix makes it easy for us to compare our actual recruitment results with our aspirational goals.

Note that the only information that’s required to participate in a usability study are name and email address. The demographic data we’re asking for can be intimate and private. We prioritize individuals’ personal safety over the goals of our research, so those questions are optional in our screeners. Worst case scenario, we would start our first round of interviews without knowing candidates’ demographics and ask if they’re comfortable sharing during the interview. This situation is not common, but allows us to respect candidate privacy.

Challenge the status quo

Operating with equity as the focus is not something most people are used to seeing or doing. Solely relying on traditional recruiting methods makes it very easy to exclude key voices. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are a few things to consider: not everyone has the privilege of all five senses, reliable income, a smartphone, high-speed internet access, food security, or a safe home environment. All of these things affect who gets included in research — and who doesn’t.

It’s important to challenge implicit biases around who is included or excluded in your research, as well as how you go about finding people to participate. Traditional methods often take the path of least resistance — reaching out to friends from school, asking neighbors, or talking with people in online spaces we frequent. But, this easily precludes people of backgrounds different from our own. Even recruiting tools like Ethnio are great but they have limits. Participants are usually required to have an email address which narrows the pool of people you’re reaching from the get-go.

To reach a diverse pool of participants, something different has to be done. One approach we’ve taken at Nava is doing outreach in physical public spaces, such as local libraries or a DMV office. Additionally, you don’t have to do community outreach alone. Partnering with local organizations, non-profits, and activists is a sure way to connect with communities of interest.

Be patient and practical

Being patient with pursuing equity is not about waiting. It’s just that you can’t boil the ocean in one research effort. It’s not possible to meaningfully reach everyone all at once.

For instance, the recommended cohort size for usability studies is five people. That small handful of people could never reflect the wide array of needs of millions. In practical terms, this means one study may have a homogenous looking cohort. Be kind to yourself and your team. Then acknowledge the shortcoming and plan for future studies to target identity groups that may have been missed. (This is where a Participant Matrix comes in handy.) Over time, your catalog of participants becomes more reflective of your service’s intended customers.

Recognize that resources, especially time, are finite. While you can’t solve every problem, you can make meaningful progress by going one step at a time. Here are two tactics we’ve had success with that you can try:

  • Brainstorm (ideally with your team) all the possible changes you can pursue to improve equity in your recruitment process. Then, map out the ideas in an impact-effort matrix. Using the visualization can then help with prioritizing tasks, starting with items in the “high impact, low effort” category.

A chart divided into four quadrants shows that high-impact, low-effort work is a good place to start, while low-impact, high-effort work should be avoided.Reviewing your ideas in an impact-effort matrix can help you decide which ones to implement quickly, which ones to plan for later, and which ones to scrap.

  • Find small ways to be more inclusive in each research initiative. This way you can embed these efforts within ongoing design and development initiatives as opportunities to broaden your understanding of how individuals experience your service. Plus, it helps to establish equitable thinking as a practice, rather than a single-use exercise.

Make your effort intentional, ongoing, and iterative — equity won’t be achieved by a one and done solution. It’s a garden that requires constant attention and care while its needs evolve and change.

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