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February 1, 2023
You want to recruit without incentives? Too bad—you have to pay your participants! Here's how to do fair UX research on a shoestring budget.
Participants are the most important ingredient in UX research. If you truly can’t afford to compensate participants, you can’t afford to run studies.
Some of you might be thinking, “well, duh. Incentives are a no-brainer."
Unfortunately, even those of you who know you need to pay incentives may be in a position which makes it difficult for you to do so.
Exhibit A, from the Research Ops Slack community:
Look, I know people are worried about the economy. Businesses everywhere are slashing their budgets. More than 140,000 employees have been laid off in 2022 alone. I get it—people are strapped for cash and looking for scrappy solutions to save money on research. But cutting out incentives isn’t it.
Before this recruiting-without-incentives nonsense goes any further, let’s talk about:
In the wake of layoffs and budget cuts across industries, researchers (and stakeholders in charge of research budgets) may be left wondering: “Can I, should I, and how do I recruit research participants without incentives?”
The answer to that is: you can’t, you shouldn’t, and you don’t.
The first and maybe the most practical reason for offering incentives is that they improve response rates to your study invites.
Most people (just like you) are busy enough, apathetic enough, or resource-constrained enough that they aren’t likely to offer their time for free. There’s plenty of research to back this up, including this systematic literature review and meta-analysis regarding the effectiveness of incentives for research participation:
“Our meta-analysis demonstrated statistically significant increases in the rate of consent and responses from participants when offered even small monetary value incentives. These findings suggest that incentives may be used to reduce the rate of recruitment failure and subsequent study termination.”
Along with increasing the likelihood that people will apply to your study, incentives also improve the rates of participants actually following through with your study.
User Interviews’s own research about incentives supports this, showing a decline in no-show rates as incentive amounts increase. The data we pulled for this study looked at only closed (successfully recruited and completed) studies—of which there were very few offering no incentives.
In other words: Good luck filling your study without a fair incentive, or any incentive at all. Participants simply don’t apply as often and rarely follow through with studies that don’t offer some kind of incentive, whether monetary or non-monetary incentives like swag or product discounts.
If you’re worried about incentives causing bias or altering participant behavior to the extent that it skews your data, you’re not alone.
See, for example, this Linkedin post from Michele Ronsen, Founder of Curiosity Tank:
Like Michele says in her post, incentives don’t typically cause bias—as long as you’re using them correctly and following the right protocols for recruitment, study moderation, and analysis.
In fact, eliminating incentives can actually increase bias. If you don’t pay participants for their time, you’re only going to attract people who feel like their feedback is important enough to share (e.g. people on the extremes, who love or hate your company enough that they want to tell you).
Nick Baum, Founder of Tremendous, explains this phenomenon on our Awkward Silences podcast:
“The best researchers that we've talked to have been adamant that you absolutely have to use incentives. One, of course, it elicits more participation, but free surveys, it's so biased, the data that you get. You are only getting responses from people who are willing to do this for free. You are going to see a drastic difference between the quality of data that you get when you use incentives and when you don't use incentives.”
We’ve established that you can reduce bias by offering incentives, period. Also, the type of incentive you offer can help you attract your target audience.
As this study on the impact of incentives on participation bias found:
“We found that a lottery reward attracted participants who held stronger openness-to-change values while a charity reward attracted those with stronger self-transcendence orientation. Further, we found that participation self-selection resulted in differences in the task outcomes. Through attracting more self-directed individuals, the lottery reward resulted in more ideas generated in a brainstorming task. Design implications include utilizing rewards to target desired participants and using diverse incentives to improve participation diversity.”
If you’re genuinely worried about introducing bias or attracting the wrong audience, think creatively about alternative incentive types and different ways to frame them. What incentive types would be most attractive to the audience you’re looking for? How can you present those incentives in a way that supports the best outcomes for your study?
Incentives are supposed to work for you, not against you—but, of course, you have to be willing to offer them in the first place.
When someone participates in a study, they’re giving you the gift of their time. Incentives are your way of saying thank you, demonstrating that you value the gift they’ve given you, and assuring them that you’re going to use that gift in a way that’s safe and respectful.
Why would participants trust an organization that doesn’t seem to value them (or their time) as individuals?
Common concerns or trust blockers for participants include:
These concerns (and others) can be overcome with fair incentives: a simple thank-you for their valuable time, attention, and data.
💡 Learn more about protecting participant trust and privacy: How to Hide Participant Names in Zoom Recordings, Consent Forms for UX Research: A Starter Template
Not everyone has the privilege of carving time out of their day to talk to you.
Whether they’re stay-at-home moms, surgical residents, Fedex delivery drivers, SaaS marketing leaders, or airplane mechanics, people may not be able or willing to make the financial sacrifices required to participate in your study—such as taking time off work or paying for public transportation.
Non-incentivized studies tend to only attract people who can afford to make those sacrifices, creating an equity gap in your audience.
By offering reasonable incentives, you enable low-income folks to participate in research, too, leading to a more diverse participant panel and holistic, unbiased insights.
Researchers have been paying participants for over a century. 💯
In fact, the first-documented case of a research incentive was paid out in the 1820s, for participation in a study about gastric physiology.
Incentives are almost universal in UX research, market research, and academic research alike (with some special exceptions, such as government workers who aren’t allowed to accept them).
So… read the room, folks. Millions of intelligent, credentialed researchers must be paying incentives for a reason, right?
You can’t cheap out on incentives.
However, most UX researchers obviously aren’t in a position to offer uber-expensive incentives and generous perks for participating in studies.
If your budget’s recently been cut or was never that great to begin with, here’s how to continue doing UX research, the right (and affordable) way:
📊 Need to demonstrate the value of UXR to your stakeholders? This article breaks down the 4 most common objections to doing research using cold, hard, stats. These will help you show your team that research is worth the time, budget, and effort—even in an uncertain economic climate.
The worst way to spend money on incentives is to accidentally give them away to low-quality participants.
Before you even start recruiting, you should be able to clearly articulate who the right audience is and how you plan to reach that audience.
The process of defining your audience is a standard part of planning for user research, so hopefully you’ve already nailed down an approach to this. If not, head to the How to Create a User Research Plan chapter of the UX Research Field Guide to learn more.
💡 Pro tip: When possible (and applicable), recruit from dedicated customer panels or customer advisory boards to speed up the process. Building an internal participant panel can be especially useful for researchers who need to target niche, hard-to-reach audiences.
All too often, researchers are left to handle incentives payouts themselves, sending gift cards manually via post or email, keeping track of who’s received what in an Excel spreadsheet, and dedicating hours of focus and energy toward one of the most easily-automated tasks in the UX research process.
There are plenty of tools in the marketplace for streamlining incentives distribution, including:
🧙♀️ Explore these and other purpose-built tools in the UX research armory in the 2022 UX Research Tools Map.
The “fairness” of a research incentive doesn’t expand or contract to fit your budget.
If you can’t afford to fairly pay 10 participants for their time, consider whether you’re able to run the study with 5 participants instead.
In fact, Zach Schendel of DoorDash explains in Debunking UX Research Myths that just 1 participant may be enough if you’re doing qualitative research:
“In my opinion, sometimes you really only need to talk to one person. I think people might fall into problems with qualitative research where they try to turn it into quantitative research. They try to say things like, oh, most of the people I talked to like this or seven out of eight really thought this person was better than this version.
That's not really what qualitative research is for. That's what quantitative research is for.”
Also ask yourself: Do I even need to talk to participants in the first place? You might find the answers you’re looking for:
These are all sources of user insight that allow you to save costs for bigger, more impactful studies with participants.
💰 What is a fair incentive range for your specific study and audience, based on market rates for successfully completed studies? Get a data-backed recommendation from our User Research Incentive Calculator.
You might not need as much budget for incentives as you think you do.
In fact, our 2022 Research Incentives report, based on data from nearly 20,000 projects completed with User Interviews in the past year, found that most studies required a minimum incentive amount to get people in the door.
By looking at the most common, second most common, and average amounts offered, we were able to identify a market rate range for attracting qualified applicants for different study types:
Depending on what you’re studying and the audience you’re trying to reach, it’s rare that you’ll have to pay above these ranges for a successful recruit.
Along with saving you money, it’s also worth noting that overpaying can theoretically become a form of coercion which can interfere with your study’s results and ethics. For example, an outsized incentive might encourage a reluctant participant (or one who’s only in it for the payout) to agree to a high-risk study that they wouldn’t have otherwise felt comfortable with.
Becky Stewart, Chief Practice Officer at the Improve Group, discusses the ethics of research incentives in this article:
“We must also consider the quality of information received from an unwilling participant whose only motivation is the incentive and not the desire to give their perspective on an issue or feedback to improve a program. In this scenario, offering an incentive may be ethical, but could jeopardize the results of the study. This is why we aim to provide incentives that are appropriate for overcoming hesitation and not acting as a large gain.”
Even if you're user testing with your mom, you owe her a nice cup of coffee or an extra long phone call. Compensation doesn't have to be cash but it does have to be valued by the participant—and not all participants are equally motivated by cash-based incentives.
Consider other, non-monetary types of compensation you can offer participants, such as:
If you’re able, you may find the best results by allowing participants to choose from a variety of different types of incentives, as Nick Baum of Tremendous suggested on Awkward Silences:
“The best solution, really, is to turn on an entire catalog for your recipients, give them as much optionality as possible.”
Some participants might prefer lower-cost incentives like company swag or access to beta features, saving you money in the long run. It’s a win-win.
UX research can impact product and business decisions that save time, effort, and cost. It can lead to higher revenue, more loyal customers, and competitive market advantages.
If your research is successful, these payoffs typically exceed the costs of research. If you can track, measure, and clearly demonstrate this value to your stakeholders, then you’ll have a much easier time advocating for an increased budget to support fair incentives.
🧠 Learn How to Track the Impact of UX Research
TL;DR—you have to pay people for their time. Yes, that’s an extra cost to your research practice, but that cost is ultimately made up for with higher-quality participants from a more diverse pool of applicants, faster time-to-match with those participants, and more accurate data.
But incentives don’t need to be an added time-cost as well.
User Interviews is the fastest and easiest way to recruit (and incentivize) quality participants for research. Get insights from any niche within our pool of over 2 million participants through Recruit or build and manage your own panel with Research Hub, the first CRM designed for researchers.
Our tools simplify all of the most tedious and time-consuming aspects of research recruiting, from sending study invites to distributing incentives after the study is completed.
Learn more about our pricing packages for varying research needs or start building your first project today (it’s free to sign up!).
Content Marketing Manager
Marketer, writer, poet. Lizzy likes hiking, people-watching, thrift shopping, learning and sharing ideas. Her happiest memory is sitting on the shore of Lake Champlain in the summer of 2020, eating a clementine.