How to Write a Great Recruiting Screener for Qualitative Interviews

What to include, what to skip, and how to focus on what's really important.

· Tools,Research,Recruiting,UX Research

Writing a good recruiting screener can be fairly straight-forward, but there are a few gotchas to look out for. The key is to focus on finding people who will be active, useful participants in your research - which means screening for curiosity, openness, and conversation skills, and not necessarily just basic demographics.

Market Research Recruiters are Powerful Allies

Whenever we work with clients on large-scale research projects, we make use of the services of a couple of reliable services for recruiting participants in that research. Unless you have a taken the time to build your own research panel (here's how!), chances are good that you're going to need to use a third party to help you get participants.

Most reputable research agencies (we like FocusPointe and Schlesinger, as a two examples) will guide you through the process of defining your audience and will even build a screener for you, for a fee. While it's nice to save a few hundred dollars on the screener-building service, there are two much more important reasons to do it yourself:

When you build the screener yourself, you have precise control over who gets recruited into your study

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A random assortment of people is generally not helpful in a qualitative study (though if you are looking to determine the attitudes/behaviors of a whole population, and can afford to recruit hundreds of participants, that's a fine way to go.)

You need a well-defined audience that matches your customer base (or an audience that will help you mindfully understand a relevant group's needs.)

This is important, because a poorly-screened participant costs you a lot of money:

  • The cost of the honorarium (payment) for the participant
  • The recruiter's fee for that participant
  • The time you waste during the study talking with someone who doesn't fit your audience, or who can't offer useful feedback.
  • And most importantly: the lost opportunity to spend time talking with someone who might have been qualified.

Writing the screener yourself takes a few hours, but it's well worth the investment.

You'll Be Better Prepped for Your Interviews

As you develop the questions for your screener, you can spend a few minutes imagining how you might ask these questions in person. Most survey screeners present potential participants with a list of questions and canned answers, and ask them to pick one (or more) of the most appropriate questions. We'll include some of this, but as importantly, we'll include many open ended questions that require a typed or spoken response (depending on how you're running the recruitment.)

The 5 Essential Elements of a Great Screener

Let's quickly review what goes into a great screener, before we jump into how to write one. There are five important things you need to keep in mind:

  • You are primarily screening people out. This means you need to precisely define exclusionary criteria.
  • Conversely, you may need to make a conscious effort to be inclusive. We often screen participants for gender, age, income and other demographics - without having a good reason for doing so. Unnecessarily excluding people from research because they don't meet some of these criteria can introduce unconscious bias into your research.
  • Do not slice the audience too thinly: for a study with 10-20 participants (which is typical for an exploratory ethnographic study) you want 5-7 people in each segment. That means 2-3 segments, max.
  • Ask some of your interview questions in the screener. This gives background information about each participant that will let you prepare better for each interview.
  • Include a question that asks the potential participant to speak at length. It's not important what they say, but whether they can and will speak at length about a topic.

9 Open-Ended Questions You Can Use

  • "Tell me about a time when you were unsatisfied with a product or service, and you contacted the company to tell them about it."
  • "Describe an experience or product that was so much fun, you had to tell your best friend about it afterwards."
  • "Describe the last vacation you took, and particularly who was involved in planning it?"
  • "What 3 things do you remember about the last time you shopped for food?"
  • "Describe, in as much detail as you can, how you go about paying your monthly bills each month."
  • "Think of a place you'd like to visit, and describe three things you'd like to do when you get there."
  • "Describe the last argument you had with a friend or loved one."
  • "What did you like the most about a television show you used to watch when you were a kid?"
  • "Say more about that." (Must be used in combination with one of the above)


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