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Innovative Approaches to User Research Recruitment Challenges

User researchers help teams understand the people who will be using Government services. We investigate who the users of a service are, what their experiences have been and what they need. We then consider how we can meet those needs through design and delivery of services.  

Our Recruitment Challenges

The Vulnerable Children and Families (VC&F) portfolio in DfE works with a wide range of people and organisations. Recent user research has included:
  • Parents and carers 
  • Family hubs, early help and social workers 
  • SEND teams 
  • Voluntary sector workers 
  • Nursery workers and childminders  
  • Local authorities and councils
We cover a wide range of subjects including careers, training, helping families get support, and safeguarding This makes for an interesting place to be a user researcher, but it also means we have challenges in recruiting our research participants.  
This is especially true when we need to talk to people about sensitive or distressing subjects, find people who don’t use digital technology, or those who deliver or use very specific services. We can’t always rely on using external recruitment agencies to find suitable people. We’ve had to find new ways to reach the people we need to talk to, and here we share some of our approaches.  

Children's play area at a family hub
Children's play area at a family hub

Finding Alternate Ways to Recruit

We have experimented and developed ways to recruit participants, including:
  • Recruitment panel: In our Social Work Workforce programme, we have started to build a recruitment panel. We formed a small team of civil servants to research alternative ways to reach the sector, including organisations and charities who have existing relationships with our hard-to-reach users. We have developed a GDPR process for managing data, ethical guidance and a recruitment survey. We are now planning to bring a role into the team to build on this work, and expand it to include all our users across VC&F. 
  • Partnering with other organisations to run challenging research: Recently we partnered with Local Authority Special Educational Needs Parent and Carer forums to help us reach parents and carers. We wanted to talk about their experiences of filling in Education and Health Care Plan applications which can be very a stressful process. Our approach helped us to find participants who were ready and comfortable to talk about their experiences. They were also supported by us and their local parent carer forum. This balanced our need to carry out our research and our responsibilities to participants
  • Pop-up interviews:  As part of our family hubs research we spoke to lots of families, carers and young people but found it hard to reach people with low digital access. We wanted to speak to people that visit family hub locations but do not use their online services.  Working with our local authority partners, we visited their family hubs for short pop-up interviews, and longer in-depth research. As a result, we spoke to families who are not able to access the internet or who choose not to be online for personal or religious reasons. This helped us understand their needs and make improvements to our service. For example, we learned how to promote the service offline, using face-face support groups or newsletters. This means more families are now aware of the help that is on offer to them.

The Impact

These approaches mean we have spoken to users that we otherwise have missed, meaning that the design of our services takes in a wider range of needs and opinions.
These approaches to recruitment take longer, which can create challenges in short, agile projects. But, we always believe that it is more important to reach the right people and do so in an ethical and considerate way. Over time, we’re learning more about what works and how to get there faster.
There are other benefits to doing our recruitment . For example, being able to involve local authority staff or parents and carers in planning our research helps us design better research.  Visiting and exploring locations where people access our services deepens our understanding. 
Our next step is to bring a role into our team to support recruitment. We are currently recruiting a Research Operations Specialist for the VC&F portfolio, to lead participant recruitment. They will help us create processes that work faster, build stronger relationships with our partners, and find a larger pool of people to perform research with. You can apply for this role here.
If you’re interested in learning more about our social work research panel or joining as a participant, you can get in touch with us here: 

As a team we’re always keen to share our approaches to recruitment and to hear about other ways of tackling this challenge. If you and your team have other approaches, we’d love to hear from you.

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