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Research Trail Guide: Writing a great recruitment brief

Maia explores how to nail down who you need to speak to when you’re planning a round of interviews

We often come across clients who've already interviewed as many as 50 people, which is great! But then when we look at the data, we realise there was no logic or filtering to choose who they spoke to. This means they're basing business decisions on perspectives and feedback from people who may have no connection with their product. Our process makes sure business decisions are always made based on relevant data.

What is it

A recruitment brief is essentially a research participant shopping list. It takes into account your learning goals and defines who you’re going to go out and try to recruit for your interviews. Having a well thought through brief makes life so much easier when you go on to build your screener (hang tight, we’ll be posting about screeners soon too).

Why is it important

Qualitative research almost always involves a small sample size and a limited time and budget, so you need to be really purposeful about who you speak to. You don’t want to be talking to just anyone. A recruitment brief helps you to think through who the right people to talk to are, so you can then go find them. It's also much easier for a client to read (and sign-off) a recruitment brief than a screener. 

How to do it

1. Write your learning goals

The first step to coming up with a winning recruitment brief is to write killer learning goals. Andrew’s ‘Introduction to learning goals’ can help you with that. This is the foundation to any successful research project.

2. Brainstorm who will help answer your goals

Next you need to ask yourself who is going to help you to answer the questions you’ve posed. It's very rare that you'll want to speak to "anyone between the age of 20-40", your learning goals should guide you towards some other key criteria. 

If you take the example of our fictional granola brand, if one question is ‘What kinds of people eat granola regularly?’ then we’ll want to speak to people who actually like granola and also some who eat it regularly. If the question is ‘Are granola-lovers likely to purchase a granola subscription?’ it makes sense that we talk to at least some people who show an existing willingness to pay for subscriptions.

Sometimes we like to go through this process with clients, brainstorming together, and other times we’ll go away and come up with a draft to then get their thoughts.

3. Build a table to prioritise

Too many criteria will make it impossible to find who you’re looking for. In an ideal world you would have a perfectly representative sample of people. Large, often quantitative, studies will try to do this, but in a small qualitative one you have to be realistic. 

We like to create a table to help our clients to prioritise between ‘critical’, ‘important’ and ‘nice to have’ criteria. This means expectations are managed from the outset. 


  • All must eat granola
  • All to live in the UK
  • 50% to have at least one subscription
  • Even split of people who eat granola 5+ times per week and people who eat it 1-2 times per month


  • All to spend £2.50+ per bag/box of granola
  • Mix of "living situations” - individuals and families

Nice to have

  • Some people who eat granola at times other than breakfast
  • Some people who eat granola outside their home
  • Some people who are ‘very interested’ in healthy living
  • Even split of genders

4. Turn your brief into a screener

Once you’ve created your recruitment brief the next step is to design your screener to enable you to find the winning participants and organise the mixes you need. 

A good brief has…

Concrete criteria

Existing behaviours and experiences are concrete ways to find people, we love them. Talking to people who are actively munching granola on the daily is going to give you much better data than someone who thinks they might like granola. Depending on the client’s needs sometimes we’ll want to add in demographic criteria too. We use our experience to judge what’s needed in each specific situation.

Numbers where possible

Be precise in your brief what you mean by each criteria. So instead of ‘people who regularly eat granola’ say ‘people who eat granola 5+ times a week’. This means everybody is aligned before you go ahead and it’ll make it easier to write your screener too.

A purposeful mix

You’ll want a mix of perspectives, but a constrained mix. Having a totally random set of people to talk to and having only one type of person are both bad outcomes. For example only speaking to health fanatics about granola will lead to a narrow view that’ll limit what you can do with the findings. You want to have a few of each kind of person, say 3-5, so that you start seeing patterns and you don’t base your conclusions on one person’s behaviour.

Few assumed correlations

Sometimes you’ll need to use proxy criteria to find the right people, but don’t if you can help it. So if you’re after people who’ll be up for buying luxury granola, don’t assume wealth or income will correlate, use something more direct like their current spend on granola.

Not too many criteria

There’s only so many criteria that can be in each category, if you want to bump something up, something else has got to go down. Too many critical criteria and too many mixes will mean that recruitment will take a lot longer and end up costing more too.

The last thing to keep in mind is to be flexible. This means knowing when to make compromises and when to hold firm on your specifications. It also means knowing when to speak to more people because there are criteria emerging as important which you hadn’t accounted for.

Our research consulting projects and training packages can provide your team with the tools and experience to make sure you always speak to the right people. Get in touch if you’re interested in working with us.

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