I remember being deep in a research project and sitting down opposite an interview candidate, mind brimming with curiosity and questions. As the research interview progressed something unexpected started to unfold.  

Me: “Can you give me an example of a time you’ve done (X)?” 

Them: “Yeah well, kind of, sure, but I also do (Y) and (Z) sometime too.” 

Me: “That’s interesting, but let's just start by talking about X?” 

Them: “I guess so, although for me there are other things that I like to do, for example...”  

I zigged, they zagged. Each verbal thrust they parried. Every time I tried to pin down an answer, they would wriggle free and start talking about something unrelated and unhelpful for the project.  

It dawned on me that despite all my efforts (and ambitions), I was sitting opposite a professional respondee – someone who makes a living by sitting on multiple research databases and shaping their responses to recruitment requests in order to get interviewed (and subsequently paid).  

These are not bad or unhelpful people, they’re just thriving in a flawed recruitment process. It’s one of many holes in the research or testing recruitment process that can critically damage your project if you don’t get ahead of it.  

Other common challenges include people who’ve misinterpreted the recruitment criteria, or those with situations that make them inappropriate to research (but you didn’t think of when recruiting) and of course, no-shows.  

Like it or lump it, for many of us using recruitment agencies to find customers is still the best way to find our people.  

So, how do you make sure you get recruitment right so that research is relevant, effective and insightful? Here are a few tips we’ve gathered during a recent project researching research (and through our own experience doing research):  

Research before you commit

Look at and speak to a range of research agencies, especially if you’re after a very specific set of candidates. 

  • Ask recruiters about the most common kinds of research projects they recruit for. 

  • Ask recruiters how and where they tend to source their candidates from (E.g. Are they more focused on metro or rural? Do they use a database or recruit via social media?). 

  • Ask recruiters how and how much they typically remunerate candidates. 

  • Ask your colleagues who they’ve had productive relationships with in the past. 

  • Do some of your own research about your customers so you have a better understanding of the context before you start. 

  • Speak to your stakeholders to see if they have connections to the communities you’re speaking to (but be wary of relying entirely on this channel). 

Write a detailed recruitment brief

Don’t be shy about detail. Lay out the exact kind of candidates you’re looking for, as it will usually make their job easier. 

  • Provide an outline of the kind of project you’re working on and the outcomes you’re trying to achieve. 

  • Explain how you will remunerate the candidates (It doesn’t have to be money, many government agencies use vouchers). 

  • Provide screening questions and the kind of responses that are “in” or “out”. 

  • Use a table to show your required representative spread. 

  • Be explicitly inclusive - state that you want culturally and linguistically diverse candidates, as well as those with different accessibility needs. 

  • Give some examples of the kind of experiences you are looking for, rather than just a list of attributes. 

  • Provide your contact details for any clarifying questions. 

Establish a relationship with the recruiter

Don’t just shoot over the brief and cross your fingers. 

  • Set up a call to talk through the brief. 

  • Ask for their feedback on the brief (they see A LOT of these and will be able to spot problems) 

  • Get to know the kind of recruitment the specific recruiter does most to make sure they’re a good fit. 

  • Form a friendly relationship and explain the kinds of expectations you have personally.  

Stay involved through the process 

Don’t feel like you’re treading on their toes – press for success.  

  • Ask to sit in on some of the initial screening calls to make sure they “get” what you’re after. 

  • Read through the responses to screening questions before candidates are confirmed, and cross-check with your original brief. 

  • Follow up with the recruiter after the interviews to provide feedback on the quality of candidates and suggestions of how things can be done better next time. 


This might seem like a lot of effort, but it’s much better than going back to your senior leader for another round of funding because you didn’t the right people.  

If you find a good recruiter, you may not need to do all of this. If you establish a relationship with a good one, you may only need to do a few. But to start, do them all and get it right. Trust me.   

For those projects where you need to find other ways to recruit, there are still valuable processes to keep from those above.  

Of course, these are just a few of the ways to ensure you get good research candidates. If you have your own (hard-won) advice, please share it in our community forum

Rich Brophy is our service-designer-in-residence at NSW Digital Service. If you have questions, suggestions or interesting ideas about how we can all design services better get in touch on rich.brophy@customerservice.nsw.gov.au