Participant Screening for Effective Research: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Meaningful research insights depend on the quality of participants involved. To ensure that the research aligns with its objectives and brings useful results, it’s important to find the right people.

Participant screening is a process for systematically identifying and recruiting participants who will give you the most valuable, accurate and actionable insights. This guide outlines the steps you need to take to create effective, sensible screening criteria to ensure you get the most from your research.

1 Define research objectives 

Before starting participant screening, make sure you have a clear understanding of  the goals and objectives of your research project. Why are you doing the research? What questions are you trying to answer? What insights are you looking for? 

Understanding the purpose of your research will help you identify the types of participants you need.

2 Review existing data

Analyse any existing data relevant to your research topic. This could include customer profiles, market research reports, analytics data, or any feedback from previous research projects. 

This process not only informs your approach but also helps to identify any knowledge gaps that your research can potentially fill.

3 Specify participants’ criteria

The previous two steps should allow you to identify the characteristics, behaviours, and demographics of the people you want to include in your research. 

Consider different criteria such as:

  • Demographics, (age, gender, ethnicity, income)
  • Behaviours, (things people do, ways people act)
  • Social factors, (lifestyle, interests, personality, values, opinions, attitudes, technical expertise)
  • Other relevant characteristics

Make sure that these criteria are in line with the research objectives: does gender make a difference? Will geographical location contribute to the insights you need? If a particular characteristic doesn't affect a participant's behaviour or attitude, it may not be necessary to include it. Focus on the attributes that will bring the answers you need. 

4 Create a screener

The screener serves as a tool to evaluate eligibility and suitability for the research. Build a screener questionnaire that effectively filters potential participants.

Describe your screener/research

Give an overview of your research, what it is for and who it is aimed at without influencing the answers. Describe what's involved: interviews, focus groups, prototype testing etc. Clearly communicate how participant data will be used and stored to reassure participants about their privacy and confidentiality, include information about how to withdraw, and don't forget about consent. Provide an estimated time to finish the screening and when selected candidates will be notified. 

Write screening questions

Develop a set of questions that will help you identify potential participants who match your target audience. These questions should cover key criteria that you identified in step 3. Keep your screening questions simple and relevant to your research objectives. Avoid asking unnecessary or complex questions that could discourage participation. Use a mix of different types of questions: multiple-choice, open-ended, and rating scale questions to gather different types of information about your participants. Keep it short. 

Order screening questions

Arrange questions logically, starting broad before going into more specific details. Identify people who do not qualify as quickly as possible by placing disqualifying questions at the beginning of your screener.

Test the screener

Pilot the screener with a small group to identify any inconsistencies or issues. Ensure that the questions are clear and effective at identifying suitable participants. Adjust questions as needed to improve the screener.

5 Recruit participants

Apply targeted recruitment strategies to attract candidates who meet your criteria. Use various channels such as social media, online forums and groups, customer databases, email lists, professional networks, recruiting agencies or community organisations to reach potential participants. Be transparent about the purpose of your research and the expectations for participation.

6 Screen and select participants

Analyse responses against predetermined criteria to identify eligible participants. Screen out applicants who don’t meet your requirements. Thank ineligible participants for their interest and inform them that you won't be inviting them to participate. You may want to ask to retain their details for future rounds of research.

7 Iterate as needed

Throughout the research process, continue to evaluate and refine the screening process based on feedback and outcomes. As you gather new insights and learn more about your target audience, be willing to adjust your approach and criteria to ensure that you're capturing the most relevant and valuable data for your research objectives.


Use our participant screening guide and template to get started