If you have been following any of the news related to COVID-19 and its impact on mental health, you know that the pandemic has had serious consequences on how people are feeling. We have even dedicated a whole page full of data to this topic on our coronavirus research website.

According to our study, a worrying number of people in the UK have been affected by high levels of anxiety, loneliness, depression and insomnia since the start of the pandemic, and the impact on younger people’s mental health is concerning. This means that, right now, every conversation you have with a participant in your research could potentially be a sensitive exchange. Of course, this extends to user recruitment and the processes we have in place at People for Research.

In today’s blog, we draw inspiration from a project we worked on a while ago for a well-known charity who provide support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide, where we had to recruit 20 to 30 people from groups considered to be high-risk to test a prototype of a digital chat tool. As you can imagine, this was an extremely emotional and sensitive project that made us rethink our approach to niche recruitment and how we could make the most of our empathy skills.

Here is what we learnt.

🔬 Identifying your audience – questions to ask

+ Be mindful about whether these participants will feel comfortable sharing the information you are planning to ask.
+ Consider what is the next best option in case it is not possible to recruit potential users of your service.
+ If recruiting your own customers, make sure you allow them to opt in to the process – never assume they will be interested by default. Also, be transparent about what you are expecting from them.
+ If you are planning to work with an external recruitment partner like PFR, write a recruitment brief and it with them.

📝 Planning your recruitment

+ Allow more time than you would for regular recruitment, even if working with a specialist agency.
+ Consider how you will communicate with the people you want to include and write targeted content – be upfront!
+ If naming your company (or your client’s company), make sure you use the right tone of voice to avoid damaging the brand.
+ Always start with an email to introduce the research and allow participants’ time to digest what you are asking from them.
+ Be as flexible as possible and work around the participants.

🧩 During recruitment

+ Call participants at times that are suitable for them.
+ Make sure participants know they can change their mind at any time in case they start to feel uncomfortable about the topic being discussed.
+ If you are very specific on the amount of feedback you will require, make sure you recruit at least one all-day standby.
+ When you have recruited your participants, send out clear guidelines explaining what they should do during the session. This also includes any NDAs that have to signed ahead of the session, for example.
+ Always follow-up with them ahead of the session. We advise you to call on the day before to answer any additional questions they might have.

📆 On the day

+ Give participants a number to call on the day in case they have any last-minute questions or change their mind about participating.
+ With most, if not all, research and testing sessions now happening remotely, this adds an extra element of uncertainty to the session, depending on the participant’s tech ability. It’s important to not only make sure participants know what to do before the session, but also to give them five minutes at the beginning where you just get to know them and give them time to relax.

🎙️ What we learn from the participants’ feedback

When we worked with the charity previously mentioned, we tried to find what participants thought of the recruitment process so we could fine tune our approach to sensitive research.

This is what they had to say (we have kept them anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic).

In conclusion:

+ In the participants’ minds, the recruitment stage and the research sessions are one single process, even if done by different organisations, so it’s important to keep the whole process consistent and make sure that teams communicate and everyone is up to date.

+ With sensitive research, it’s important to strike a balance when recruiting participants who have a connection to the topic, but are not at risk of being triggered by the interview, testing or group discussion.

+ It’s important to keep the participants engaged during the sessions by given them space to share their views without forcing them to approach topics they are not comfortable talking about.

+ Ensuring confidentiality throughout the entire process is key.

For more information on the original project we mentioned in this blog, read this case study.



Maria Santos, Head of Digital Ops & Data Protection

If you would like to find out more about our in-house participant recruitment service for user testing or market research get in touch on 0117 921 0008 or

At People for Research, we recruit participants for UX and usability testing and market research. We work with award winning UX agencies across the UK and partner up with a number of end clients who are leading the way with in-house user experience and insight.