MIL-OSI USA: Recruiting Participants & the Legend of “The General Public”

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Source: US Government research organizations

We’re sure that if you have ever tried put together any user experience testing, especially for the government, that at one point or another your client has said that their target audience is the “general public”.  Your conversations may have sounded something like this:

Question: “Who is the target audience for this site?”
Answer:  “The General Public”

Question:  “Who would you like us to bring in for usability testing?”
Answer:  “The General Public”

Question: “Who should be involved in this card sort?
Answer:  “The General Public”

Unfortunately, many believe the “general public” is well suited for any test, survey, or focus group.  The thing is that using the non-descript “general public” isn’t helpful because it doesn’t exist. So your critical task in recruiting for tests – and also in designing – is to get more specific and identify what your team really means when they say the “general public”.

Knowing who your target audiences are and identifying their top tasks is a critical part of designing your site and forming an effective content strategy.  This can be done through various market research, user research, and web analytics techniques.  When it comes to testing, being able to draw on those established audience groups and recruiting representative participants is fundamental to yielding useful results and the acceptance of your insights and recommendations.

Identifying Your Participants

When identifying test participants create a list of the traits, characteristics or experience you will need in a participant based on metrics or discussions with your client or team. This information will help you develop the recruiting criteria and screener you will use to recruit participants.

At a high-level, here are some of the things your recruiting criteria and screener should cover:

Age Range

  • What are the age ranges?
  • How many do you need in each range?


  • One or both genders?
  • How many of each gender?


  • Which ethnicities?
  • How many of each ethnicity?


  • Level(s) (Examples: High School or GED degree, business or trade school, Associates degree, Bachelors degree, Masters or Doctorate)
  • Distribution at each education level


  • Primary or target language


  • Level of desired familiarity with the service, subject or technology

Previous Usage

  • Previous usage of the service, subject or technology

Technology qualifications

  • The use of specific hardware, software or devices


  • Level/frequency of Internet usage

Special qualifications

  • Job history
  • Health history (including past tobacco use)
  • Personal history
  • Living environment
  • Family environment
    • Children
    • Marital Status

We have a couple of example templates available for you to adapt for your own use:

Knowing Where to Look

Once you identify the who you are testing, you must address where you can find your participants. In many cases, the list you generate will dictate the location for your search and, in some cases, your test methodology as well.

Using an Affiliation to Find Participants

Having an affiliation with an organization can help you find participants that meet your criteria. For example, if your recruiting criterion includes retired service personnel who assist returning veterans blinded during service.  It may look something like:

  • Level of desired familiarity with the service, subject or technology
    • They must be familiar with the site
  • Previous usage of the service, subject or technology
    • Weekly visits to the site in question
  • Technical qualifications
    • Must use a screen reader

There is likelihood that these participants are affiliated with the VA, not centrally located geographically, and that they are visually impaired.  Therefore, these circumstances would encourage:

  • Recruiting through the VA
  • Testing remotely to eliminate the need for cost of travel
  • Allowing participants to use their own equipment

Using a Recruiter

If you do not have the resources, a ready pool of participants, or an affiliation with an organization to help you, hiring a recruiter might be an excellent option. The Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) published an excellent reference for recruiting , including tips for using a recruiting firm.

We would encourage you to Review NNG’s document for more advice on recruiting.  Every organization and every research project is unique, but this provides a good cross section of information to create your recruiting plan. If you are considering hiring a recruiter, check with your marketing department for existing contracts or experience with recruiting agencies. Ask colleagues and friends in UX which recruiting agencies they’ve used successfully as well.

Preparation for Your Recruit

Whether recruiting on your own or using an outside firm, gather the following information in preparation for test day:

Recruiting Criteria

Information on Incentives

  • Whether you are compensating and if so, how much you are paying and how you are paying

Location of Testing

  • Include any available maps, parking and travel information

Available dates & times


Screening script or questionnaire

  • What rules participants in or out
  • Basic information for categorizing participants

Information for test day

  • Contact information & instructions

Once you have identified your specific “general public” you can move on validating, refining and designing the sites and products best for them.