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Research Trail Guide: Screening research participants

How to filter your research participants so you only speak to the cream of the crop

Generally in research projects you have a limited amount of time and resources, so you have to make sure you speak to the right people. Over the years we’ve honed our ability to write the screening questions that will bring us the people who can help us best. This article will help you get it right first time.

What’s the deal with screening

What it is

Screening is the process of asking prospective interviewees questions about their characteristics and behaviour, so that you can decide which of them you want to speak to.

Why it’s so important

Screening can make or break your qualitative research. It’s the difference between speaking to a fancy-cereal muncher, to inform your granola startup’s product strategy, and picking random people off the street and making fundamental company decisions based on what they say.

How to start

The brief

The first step to writing a screener should always be writing a Recruitment Brief. This is a list of all the characteristics and behaviours we want our interviewees to have (check out our Trail Guide on writing a cracking recruitment brief!). It’s a best guess at the target audience and it should be more or less focused depending on how sure you are about who this is. It might include characteristics like ‘Living in London’ and behaviours like ‘eats brunch out at least once a week’. You might also want some ‘mixes’ like ‘A mix of ages’ or ‘A mix of breakfast times.’

The format

Once we’ve agreed the brief, we need to write the questions to find those people. The pro terminology for this is a 'screener', it's essentially a little survey. Most screening questions will be multiple choice, this makes life a lot easier when it comes to sorting the responses. But you might want to include a couple of open field questions because they give you a good sense of how genuine a person is, how good a talker they are and how serious they are about taking part.

The recruitment platform

If we’re recruiting through social media or another open method then we’ll build our screener in Google Forms or Typeform. If we’re using a recruitment platform then we’ll build it directly on there. 

It’s worth getting familiar with what’s possible on your chosen platform before writing all the questions. User Interviews and Respondent allow more flexibility in the questions you ask, and you can hand pick people to interview based on their responses. With User Testing however, the questions you set are all accept/reject filters and the interviewees are automatically booked. So you’ll need carefully worded questions and multiple screeners to get the mix you want.

The nitty gritty

Cascade your questions

Start your questions broad and then narrow down. For example ‘Do you eat breakfast?’ should come first to filter out the people who don’t break their fast til lunch. Then ‘What do you eat for breakfast?’ should come after, so you can keep only the granola eaters. Don't leave the big rejection bombshells til the end of the screener, it sucks to fill out a big form and then get rejected on the last question!

Get them to quantify

Screening is our one shot at getting to who we need to speak to. If we're looking for granola superfans, then we want them to eat a lot of it, so you’ll need them to quantify their consumption. Make your question specific, so instead of asking ‘Do you ever eat granola?’ you’ll want to ask ‘How often do you have granola per week?’.

Avoid ‘double-barrelling’

Mixing multiple criteria together can really trip you up when you’re trying to choose who to speak to. We always work to make our questions discrete, if it’s feeling complicated you might well need to split it in two. For example if you’re looking for a mix of speed eaters and health freaks don't ask 'Do you typically eat a quick, healthy breakfast?'. This question jumbles together speed and nutrition. You won't be able to sort for each criteria and people will struggle to answer if they care about one but not the other. Break it down into two questions and save yourself hassle.

Screening out the scammers

Part of your job whilst screening is to do your best to make sure you get genuine participants. As we covered in our ’Lemons’ Trail Guide, unfortunately not everyone out there is trying to help you get the most from your research. Questions shouldn’t give away the answer you’re looking for. This limits people simply guessing their way through the screener. For example ‘What do you have for breakfast?’ instead of ‘Do you like granola?’. 

A trick question can also help to catch out the speed clickers or scammers. For example ‘Which of the following isn’t a UK cereal brand?’.

Following up

Follow up questions help you to speak to serious people. Sometimes we ask them to share something we’ll need for the interview ahead of time - like proof of the granola purchase they said they’ve made.

If there’s time or a lot on the line, we’ll have a brief screening call with potentials. This is a chance to check they are who they say they are and also that they’re a good talker.

Selecting the chosen ones

The outcome of your screening will most likely be a spreadsheet of all the prospective recruits’ responses. Here you can start sorting through, filtering the answers to your questions to find the people who fit your brief. It’s at this point you’ll be thanking your past self for those killer questions that dealt with each of your requirements one by one. Or maybe not! But next time you’ll definitely have learnt your lesson.

One of the services we offer at Muir Wood & Co is a research planning workshop, where we help you write your recruitment brief and build the screener. This saves our clients a lot of logistical effort and the heartache of speaking to the wrong people. Get in touch if you want to discuss working together.

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