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How to validate your idea with $100 or less

Step by step guide to recruit participants for your user research and customer interviews on a low budget.

When I first got this idea — to make a customer interview and find out if the product I was about to build actually solved somebody’s problem — it was 3 years ago. My experience was pretty sad. I searched and searched, and searched. And found nothing that could help me with running this experiment on a low budget.

I could probably hire a marketing agency. But I imagined no one would rush to do all the heavy lifting for $200–300 I was inclined to spend. Online survey market players (like SurveyMonkey) offered access to their panels — but it was not for interviews, it was for surveys. In case you’re not sure about the difference: the survey is a set of questions with pre-defined answers to choose from (pretty often, it’s something like “How would you rate our service on a scale from 1 to 5?”). When the interview is an open conversation between you (an interviewer) and a person who has the problem you’re solving with your product or you think they do). At an early stage, while you haven’t built anything yet and about the define the core features of your MVP or just validating your idea, surveys are pretty much useless. What to rate if there’s no product yet? What you need here is an interview. But where and how can you find people who would agree to give you, a perfect stranger, 30–40 minutes of your time and discuss with you openly and honestly their problems and pains? Luckily, unlike 3 years ago when I just began this journey, I know plenty of options to do it today, going from totally free to fairly cheap. Let’s dive in.

I. Totally free — Twitter and LinkedIn

Social platforms will be your first reasonable choice because they offer access to millions of user profiles for free. I grouped Twitter and LinkedIn in one category because, though they are very different, in terms of recruitment your participants for interviews they follow the same rules.

Step 1: Search for candidates

Put the role/keyword you associate with your product within your search bar and go through the results. For instance, you think of building an app for productivity and you think it will be the most useful for young energetic developers who try also to get a degree on the side. Therefore, you need to search for “developer” or some specific computing language — probably, a popular one right now as you’re targeting the young ones (ex., Python, R, Node.JS, etc.).

Step 2: Research the candidates

Make a list of 50 candidates. Don’t reach out straight away! Go to Advanced search in Twitter and check out if any of them have ever made a comment or posted a tweet about productivity. If they have — great. Add a link to this tweet to your project file — you’ll use it on the next stage.

In LinkedIn just do a regular search “productivity” +@the account you have dugout. Again, if anything yields — add it to your stash.

If you have no mentions of the problem your product is dealing with from any of your prospects — let’s try to go to the next stage. But your chances of getting a quality interview have just decreased.

Step 3: Reach out

Try to reach out to every prospective in DM and explain your plan.

Tips: make it personal. And make it about their expertise and achievements.

If they have mentioned the problem your product is dealing with it should sound like this:

Hey X, I’ve seen this post where you were talking about Y (link here). I see that you’ve been thinking about this subject and have expertise in this field. This is the reason why I’m addressing you. I’m currently making research in this particular field to build a product that would solve this problem. Any chance you’d be willing to have a call with me about it?

If they have not mentioned the problem your product is dealing with try to personalize your message as much as you can. Again, let’s take our productivity example, and let’s imagine you’re addressing someone on LinkedIn. It can go something like:

— Hey X, I’m reaching out to you because I’m doing this research on productivity. And you’ve spent several months as a junior developer in Facebook at the same time trying to get your degree from Harvard. This sounds extremely impressive and challenging! Any chance you’d be willing to have a call with me about it. I’d love to include your unique experience in my research. I’m certain it’ll be helpful to thousands of other devs.

By the end of this exercise, you’ll have 5 to 10 people who’d agree to make an interview with you for free.

Things to remember

  1. You’ll have tons of LinkedIn accounts that are “dormant” — people who visit the network once a year or only when they change an employer and want to update their CV. Before reaching out make sure this person is active (comments, posts).

  2. Twitter and LinkedIn are perfect playgrounds for recruiting for B2B products. If you’re building something that will solve work-related issues — go there. If you’re building an app for sharing recipes — these networks are not the best place, to begin with.

II. Almost Free — Reddit

I’ve heard that there was a time when Reddit belonged to the first category. It was a dreamland for researches — you had to go there, find a subreddit where your prospective customers are and just post there a request for an interview. It would sound like this:

Hey, I’m a researcher running a study related to X. We’re looking for 10 people to run a set of 30-min long interviews. In exchange, we’ll be happy to send a $15 Amazon gift card to every participant. If you’re interested in taking part please DM me.

In my personal experience — it never works like this 😂

All the groups that I’ve seen recently have a strong no-surveys policy. You just can’t post a call out for interviews there — admins will automatically delete it. However, if you manage to find a sub with old liberal everyone-can-post-anything rules you’re welcome to use the above template.

Most probably, though, you’ll land in a sub with no-survey/no-interview rules. What can be done about it?

Option 1 (recommended):

Use the same approach as with Twitter/LinkedIn. Search within the sub for accounts that have commented on the related problem. Then send them a direct message (use the template above). Do you through in an Amazon gift card here? Depends. In my experience, if you’re recruiting again, for B2B products (programmers, engineers, talent specialists, etc.) you can try to keep it free. I would recommend the A/B test though: send 10 messages with a promise to give a $15 voucher, and 10 without one. If you’re recruiting for a B2C product (ex. pet owners) I suggest offering a $15 voucher for every participant.

Option 2 (less preferable):

Survey sub r/SampleSize. Here you can post a call out without the risk of being banned by the admins. Use the template of the post I offered above.

Things to remember

  1. Reddit is a network where you know next to nothing about your prospective candidates for an interview. You know nothing about their location, age, income level, are they even who they claim they are. It’s not like LinkedIn or Twitter where you can go through a person’s activities and figure out all the demographics without asking prying questions.

  2. Therefore, if you use Reddit you have to add one more step to your recruitment routine: screening! Believe me, if you don’t want to spend a dozen of Amazon gift cards on totally useless interviews don’t skip screening!

How does screening look like?

It’s a process where you basically filter your candidates and choose the ones you would finally talk to. In some rare cases, you’ll have to be creative about it. But most times it’s a pretty straightforward workflow. If demographics is really important, ask the demographics-related questions after a person agrees to an interview:

Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me. Would you just answer some basic questions so that we can schedule an interview? What are your age and location?

Very important! Ask 2–3 questions that will prove that a person is who they claim to be. For instance, if it’s a programmer ask what programming languages they use now more often and why. If it’s a pet owner and you’re planning to manufacture dogs raincoats, ask how often do they take their dog outside, when do they do it and what distance do they usually cover. Recently, when I ran a set of interviews with parents of fussy eating kids and posted in r/SampleSize a call to interview my DM was attacked by fathers who knew nothing about their child feeding schedule but wanted to get Amazon voucher. By asking, what’s their child’s feeding schedule and how did they come up with it, I managed to filter almost everyone off. Finally, I got back to searching and direct messages.

III Paid For Services

There’s a number of them now. I like to use Userinterviews. But you can also check out People Fish, Dovetail, UX Army, or OptimalWorkshop.

Step 1. Post a “project”

Here, the process is similar to posting your call to interview in a public subreddit. The difference is that provider does a background check for you and you don’t have to ask demographics-related questions. You can choose from the offered pool candidates of a specific age, location, gender, household income level, language — whatever. This is what you’re paying for.

Step 2. Post screening questions

However, you’ll have to do the screening too. Usually, you’d have to post several questions in a form of a survey for the candidates to answer. I like to use open-ended questions and/or open answers. They usually give you a better feel of a person.

Step 3. Approve candidates and schedule interviews

Then the platform starts hand-picking users that align well with your requirements and send their profiles for you to approve. You can approve or reject after going through candidate’s answers to your screening questions and their profiles on social media. Add a link to Zoom or Google meets and schedule an interview.

With the platforms, you can very well get 5 quality for less than $100. Plus money that you would spend on Amazon gift cards. If you don’t have too much time to do your own research on Twitter or if you feel very awkward reaching out to total strangers it sounds like a good investment of $100 for me. Compared to thousands you might have spent developing a product that doesn’t solve any real problem — this is an even better deal.

Post Scriptum

I did not include Facebook in this article. Because I personally did not have experience recruiting someone from Facebook. In my opinion, Facebook is like Reddit in some respect — there are plenty of niche groups you can use to “fish” for your candidates. But groups almost never agree to let you post a call to interview for free. On the other hand, if I did not have luck with them doesn’t mean you won’t too. Give it a try.

So, what I did — I went through the group posts and then reached out to specific participants who had posted about “my” problem. Again, after making a background check and making sure their accounts are not fakes. However, for some reason, I had a very low rate of response on Facebook to the mase personalized massages that I used on Twitter, Linked In, and Reddit. I’m still to figure out, why. But as I don’t have a ready to share the answer, I haven’t included Facebook in a list. Again, it shouldn’t stop you from shooting your own shots with this social platform.

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