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Talking To Strangers On The Street: Recruiting Through Intercepting People

Finding interview subjects for research projects can be challenging. When participants are exceptionally hard to find, what’s a researcher to do? Why not try recruiting by intercepting? My team used this approach on a recent project when participants were difficult to locate.

Two people at a table in a community center library. The room is informal but comfortable looking with books lining the walls.
Figure 1. Dana working with a participant in a community center, where she was able to work with participants who were “hanging out” for the evening. (Credit: Center for Civic Design)

Hard-to-Find Participants Walk Among Us

Typically, we focus recruiting on behaviors. For our research needs the people we wanted to talk to do not take part in a desired behavior. Specifically, they don’t vote.

We did street intercepts because we couldn’t figure out a way to find the people we wanted through any conventional recruiting method. How do you recruit on a negative behavior? Or rather, how do you find people who aren’t doing something, especially something they are likely to think they should be doing – so they might lie about it?

It’s not uncommon for retail companies to have mystery shoppers who chat up other people in their stores. The head of Intuit, Scott Cook, instituted followme-home studies long ago, i.e., find someone in a store who is buying your product, have a conversation, invite them into your study, and then see if they’ll let you follow them home and watch as they open, install, configure, and use your stuff for the first time. It’s what Cyd Harrell and Nate Bolt call “in-time recruiting.” The user is in the moment, not just in the market. There’s no question about the motivation.

We wanted to learn about information challenges for people who are eligible, but not voting. This is less about being at the right time and more about being in the right place. We needed to go where these people might be.

The Art of the Intercept

Much of the success of intercepting people to do interviews and testing on the street has to do with how you design your approach.

First, there’s what you look like. We were researchers and we wanted people to understand that intuitively. A couple of things about us made that easy: We’re two middle-class, middle-aged white women wearing sensible shoes and kindly expressions and carrying clipboards. One person asked me if I was a professor at the nearby university. Clothes are important. Props, like clipboards with signs on them and ID badges, are important. Smiling is important.

But also, be comfortable. You may be on your feet for hours. Out in weather. So plan for being warm enough, cool enough, sun-screened enough, keeping in mind that you have to carry everything you need for the day without looking like a bag lady.

In my previous intercept experience, I started by quickly saying something like, “May I ask you a couple of quick questions about X?” But after I watched a pro–a colleague who works for the League of Women Voters registering people to vote–I tried different approaches with different people. But mostly what worked was some variation of:

“Hi. My name is Dana. I’m a researcher and I’d love to ask you a couple of questions about voting and elections.”

There’s something about introducing yourself that gets people to stop and pay attention. However, we ran into plenty of skepticism. So the follow-up often went something like:

“I’m not selling anything. I don’t work for any of the campaigns or parties.I don’t have a petition. I just have a couple of questions. Ok?”

That’s usually all it took.

How to communicate

Know your anticipated study outcomes and the reasons for those assumptions. This makes it easier to be flexible with changing conditions and a varied available population.

  • Be ready with any appropriate, quick, and friendly question. You have to be “on” and energized without being freaky.
  • Use your own style.
  • Cast your question in a culturally acceptable way. Be sensitive to and respectful of ethnic customs and protocol.
  • Be inquisitive rather than confrontational.
  • Work the researcher angle. People want to help you if they can.

Not everyone wants to help you, though, and some folks just won’t talk to strangers. And of course, hardly anyone qualifies for your study when you’re out in a random pool. For our most recent study, we conducted 55 twenty-minute interviews during a three-week period in which we did one or two days of intercepts in each of four cities. There were days when we stood (or paced) for three or four hours and managed to do only a couple of interviews each.

Reaching your quota

  • Give yourself plenty of time.
  • Consider setting goals for the day as motivation.
  • Don’t expect everyone you approach to say “yes.”

Location, Location, Location

One of the biggest challenges was choosing where to try to intercept people. We wanted people who didn’t vote or voted infrequently. Fortunately, they’re everywhere. But we were pretty sure that there were places where prospective voters were more likely and less likely to be.

We looked for cities with diverse neighborhoods. The next trick was to find the right place within the neighborhood to do our epic hanging around.

You want a place where there is plenty of foot traffic, but not where people are on their way somewhere. Train stations, maybe. Subway stops, not so much. Our greatest success was at a community center one evening. There were a lot of people coming and going for events, but there were also people just hanging out who had time to spend with us and were glad to do it. We had called ahead to ask if it would be permissible for us to be there, if we needed to rent a room, and whether there were any rules we needed to know. When we arrived, the director was delighted to see us, made introductions, and gave us a tour (see Figure 1).

There were also a couple of places where we had handlers or intermediaries. In one neighborhood, a community activist took us around to some of the spaces where she regularly worked with people or groups.

We had general success at or near libraries. A large city library had a lot of foot traffic from the neighboring university, as well as other people from the community. This population mix yielded several qualified candidates for our study.

Choosing a venue

  • Cafés and restaurants will be more welcoming, especially if you offer to buy
  • something for you and your participants, or if you know the proprietor.
  • Intercepting inside a library is not feasible since the venue is too far away from foot traffic.
  • What you are doing may be seen as soliciting, which is illegal in some situations. Be sure to check local regulations so as not to violate any laws.
  • Colleges may want you to go through their institutional review board (IRB), unless you know the provost or president who can grant approval.
  • Community centers can be safe, fun, target-rich environments with a little advance planning.

Guarding Your Personal Safety

This brings us to safety and awareness of your surroundings. We did all of our street intercepts during daylight hours. We conducted separate interviews, but we were usually within viewing range of each other, and when we weren’t, we either checked in first or SMS’d new locations. (I would never try this kind of fieldwork without a cell phone handy.) When we did intercept interviews in the evening we chose indoor locations, such as the community center.

There are people in the general public who would be perfect for your study, but when you see them, they actively avoid you. They turn away, cross the street, or just look down. It is fascinating to be deliberately ignored. When that happened a lot, I took at as a signal that I needed to check myself.

What was my posture like? How was I holding myself? Was the sign for my study showing and readable? Was I showing any signal that I should not be approached? Potential interview subjects will be more receptive to someone who devotes attention to their personal appearance and demeanor.

Safety Tips

  • Work in pairs.
  • When working outside, work during daylight hours, unless you know the neighborhood to be safe.
  • If you decide to separate, agree on a meeting time and place to check in.
  • Make sure your cell phone is fully charged.
  • Have a plan for emergencies.

Go Where the People Are

Recruiting well for user research is one of the greatest challenges of day-to-day work in experience design. Focusing on behavior makes it easier. How do you find people who are hard to find through the usual channels? We decided to go where our people were: streets, libraries, community centers, churches, malls. Sure enough, there they were. All we had to do was talk to enough strangers.