How to write a qualitative research screener

Editor’s note: Joanna Jones is the CEO and founder of InterQ and co-founder of InterQ Learning Labs. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared under the title “How to write a screener for recruiting market research studies.

If you work in market research, recruiting the right participants for your study is an essential part of the job. This article will focus on how to write a screener for qualitative research studies. A screener is the document you send out (typically in the form of an online survey) for potential participants to fill out. They are essential in ensuring that the candidates you’re targeting have the correct demographic and psychographic qualities for your segments. In qualitative research, this is particularly essential, as qualitative employs smaller sample sizes, with more homogenous targets.

In quantitative surveys, screeners are also essential, but they’re typically part of the initial survey questions. However, in qualitative research, screeners are used before participants are interviewed – whether the ultimate study design is a focus group, in-depth interview, UX research or mobile or in-person ethnographies. Here are some guidelines for putting together an effective qualitative research screener.

Tip 1: Go from specific to general

If you’ve written discussion guides before for qualitative research, you know that the rule of thumb is general to specific. You want participants to define the categories before you do. I like to visualize an upside-down triangle, with general topics before specific.

In recruiting screeners, however, the opposite is true. You want to start off with the specific categories first, or, in other words, the questions that are must-haves for the participant to have to qualify. Put your specific questions first to save participants time – you want to qualify or disqualify people early on, versus making them fill out a long screener, only to put your must-haves at the end and disqualify them later.

For example, if you are conducting a study with electric vehicle owners, you want your very first questions to ask whether they own the model of vehicle you’re studying – don’t bury this mid-way through or toward the end. Put your “must-haves” to qualify at the very beginning. Then ladder down from super specific to the more general questions that will help you sort people demographically and psychographically.

Tip 2: Make the screener brief and clear

A screener should be brief yet capture the essential information you need to ensure participants meet the segment criteria. At InterQ, we first start off by using online survey screeners, and then we do a secondary screening on Zoom to ensure people are articulate and are who they say they are (note that fraud has become rampant in qualitative recruiting, so this second step is super important). We try to keep our screeners less than 15 questions; too many questions and participants tend to have high drop-off rates.

Tip 3: Be transparent about the study

In the paragraph that introduces your screener, let participants know what the study is generally about (for example, “Interviewing EV car owners about your vehicle”). You want to be specific enough to ensure you’re capturing the right people to take the screener, but not so specific that people will try to game the answers to get in the study. Set expectations early on: How long the qualitative participants will need to devote to the study if they’re invited in (e.g., one-hour Zoom interview; in-house ethnography; five-day online diary). Also let them know what the compensation is and any other essential information they’ll need to agree to, such as signing an NDA. If you let participants know early on, you can save some potential drop-offs if participants sign up fully knowing the time commitment or what is expected of them. Be clear and transparent.

Tip 4: Focus on close-ended questions

Screeners are similar to surveys (they are a survey, if we’re being precise), so the questions should be primarily close ended, with multiple choice, Likert Scale or rating questions. The goal of a qualitative recruiting screener is to see if people meet the criteria of defined segments, which your research team should know upfront. These should be clearly defined categories that are turned into multiple choice questions for potential participants to move through.

Tip 5: Incorporate the essential questions

Standard in most screeners are questions such as:

  • Brands/products used: If you are conducting a consumer study, this is especially helpful. Hide your brand/category in a multiple-choice format of similar brands to see if they use the product/category you use. Brand choice also helps you segment participants based on purchasing habits.
  • Past participation in research studies: Beware that there are many “professional respondents” out there who frequently do studies with multiple agencies. Always ask a question about their past participation in studies. 
  • Employment: Additionally, you’ll likely want to screen out people who work in market research, advertising or public relations. For B2B studies, you may have additional disqualifiers based on the company they work for, so make sure to ask this.
  • ID verification: Let participants know once they reach the end that they will be asked to provide ID (typically a driver’s license) that will need to match their e-mail address, online profile (such as LinkedIn or social media profile) or another form of identification. This also helps keep scammers out.

A properly written qualitative screener goes a long way 

Writing an effective qualitative research screener is an essential component of finding the right participants to interview/observe in market research studies. This is a step that should be thought out, with a process behind it.