Recruiting service users for evaluation interviews

Helen Brookes offers advice to researchers who need to carry out interviews with service users

People talking and writing When we evaluate our services, we usually conduct in-depth interviews with a sample of service users. We do this in order to understand what’s working and identify any improvements that need to be made. 

We aim to recruit a diverse sample of interviewees so we can get as wide a range of views as possible. 

But getting service users to consent to taking part in an evaluation interview is only the first step along what can be a challenging road. 

When I was recruiting new parents who had attended the NSPCC’s Baby Steps programme, for example, only about two thirds of those who initially agreed to take part made it to interview; the other third either couldn’t be contacted or pulled out at a later stage. 

In this post, I’m offering 5 tips about how to successfully recruit service users for evaluation interviews, based on my own experience.


1: Try creative ways to make contact

Sometimes you need to find creative ways of getting a response from people.

During the Baby Steps evaluation, I found that parents were reluctant to answer the phone if I called from the office because it came up as a withheld number – but if I used my mobile to call them, they usually either picked up or called me back. I also found that younger parents responded well to texts.

In my experience, male participants can be harder to get in contact with than women. If I wanted to interview a mum and a dad, because they both received the intervention, I would arrange the interview with the mum first and then mention that I’d also be contacting her partner, asking her to let him know to expect the call. Sometimes, if possible, I’d get her to pass the phone over and speak to him there and then.

And, if parents were still in contact with practitioners, I’d sometimes ask them to let the parents know in advance to expect my call.

2: Offer incentives

We reimburse participants for taking time out of their busy schedules to take part in an interview with a £10 voucher, redeemable in a range of high street shops.

Some service users are motivated by having the opportunity to give something back to the service, or simply to air their opinions, but, for those who are more reticent, we’ve found incentives to be an effective way of encouraging participation.

It can be really helpful to mention the voucher during the initial recruitment phone call.

For some client groups, other types of incentives may be more suitable. When interviewing pregnant mothers in prison, for example, I gave them a nursery rhyme book they could read to their unborn baby.

3: Send reminders

As we often set up interviews 10 days to 2 weeks in advance, it can be helpful to send a reminder 1 to 2 days before the interview.

I’ve found the wording of these reminders is really important.

What works best for me is a text in the style of an automated message: “This is a reminder that you will be attending an interview @ (address, date and time)”, for example.

I always included a phone number, so that if they did want to pull out they were able to reach me - but not inviting them to do so!

4: Be flexible with timings and location

When interviewing parents with young babies, I gave them different options in case it was difficult for them to get to the service centre under their own steam. I offered either to provide a taxi to take them to the centre, or to travel to them and do the interview at their home.

This sometimes meant that babies and older children were present during the interview (and even the best behaved might make a bit of noise which can make things tricky for the person who transcribes the audio recording). On occasion, it was helpful to have a toy or smart phone app available to distract toddlers during the interview.

For working parents, I made myself available in the evening when they were more likely to be around.

5: Know when to give up trying

Despite all these measures, there will always be people you won’t manage to interview. They may never pick up the phone, or they don’t turn up to the interview.

Ultimately, you have to accept their decision not to participate.

There’s a fine line between maximising their opportunity to participate and hassling them and, potentially, causing them distress.

You have to be mindful that some people will have agreed because they found it hard to say no, even though it was made clear that they didn’t have to take part.

I usually call 2 or 3 times, at different times of the day, then text once. If they don’t respond by that point, I assume they no longer want to take part in the evaluation.

If people don’t turn up to the interview, I usually text them to say “don’t worry - but if you change your mind, get in touch”. If they don’t respond to that, I leave it.

In my experience, I’ve found that knowing when to give up is as important as knowing when to pursue an interview.

I hope you will find these tips useful and good luck with your recruitment!

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