User Research Incentives

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Note to the reader:

This part of the field guide comes from our 2019 version of the UX Research Field Guide. Updated content for this chapter is coming soon!

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In this chapter

  • What is a research incentive?
  • Types of incentives and when to offer them
  • Why participant compensation matters
  • How to create a UX research incentives plan
  • Saying thank you 


What is a research incentive?

An incentive is a reward that you offer participants in exchange for taking part in your research. Incentives encourage participation, can help you recruit a broader pool of participants, and thank people for their time.


Incentives can be anything—from company swag to cold, hard cash. While cash and cash-like rewards are the most common type of incentive, what you offer should be based on who you’re looking to recruit. 


Why participant compensation matters

When it comes right down to it, incentives are a tool for attracting quality applicants, getting a large volume of applications, and encouraging people to show up for your study. 


What’s more, as 18F, a digital consultancy for the US government explains:


Incentives often result in a more diverse, representative set of participants. Without incentives, you often end up recruiting people with a strong intrinsic interest in your website. These people may not have the same needs and experiences as a less interested pool of users. With incentives, you can encourage less interested, more representative people to participate. 


But it’s well worth mentioning that people ought to be compensated simply because their time and their input are valuable. You probably wouldn’t bother inviting them to participate in your research otherwise. 


And your time is valuable too! That’s why it’s so important to structure your incentives appropriately so that your participants don't end up leaving you and your team hanging at the last minute.

Are there drawbacks to paying participants?

Some people worry that offering incentives to participate in user research can compromise the results of a study. The argument goes that doing so will:

  • Introduce bias and oversampling of certain groups.
  • Attract professional participants who lie about their eligibility to qualify.
  • Exclude people who aren’t interested in the type of incentive you’re offering.
  • Create a conflict of interest.


Laura Klein, user experience expert and author of Build Better Products and UX for Lean Startups (and Awkward Silences guest!), writes:

A lot of people ask whether offering some sort of incentive for people to participate in a study will bias the results. The answer is, "not if done correctly." 


And luckily, that’s what this chapter is about—how to create a great incentives plan!


Note: Certain participants simply cannot accept compensation for their time—government officials, for example. If you’re recruiting participants who you know can’t accept an incentive, don’t offer one (just make sure you take extra care to thank them for their time).

How to create a UX research incentives plan

Now that you know your options, let’s go over how to create a plan for user research incentives—including how to calculate the right amount to pay, how to communicate about incentives, and how to distribute them (which you should be prepared to do soon or immediately after each session).


Firstly, know your audience...

1. Be clear about who you’re trying to recruit (and why)

Before you can hammer out the specifics of your incentives plan, you need to establish:

  • Clearly defined research goals and study objectives
  • Must-have participant criteria
  • Screener questions to filter out the right participants


We covered the first two items in-depth in the chapter on How to Recruit Participants for User Research Studies, and we went deeper on screener surveys in the last chapter. If you haven’t already, we recommend pausing to read those before finalizing any incentive plans.


As a refresher, to figure out who to recruit for a study, you should think about your research question, imagine the ideal participant who can give you the answers you need, and identify the criteria that must be true about them in order to qualify for your study.

To figure out who to recruit for UX research, ask yourself:

  • What phase of product development are you in? 
  • What is the goal of your research? 
  • What is your research question? 
  • Who can answer that question? 
  • Who can’t answer that question?


The answers to these questions will help you create a profile of the type of participant you’re looking for—aka the folks you’re trying to attract and motivate with an incentive.

2. Choose the right type of incentive

To get really useful results you need to capture the right audience. So how should you incentivize people to participate in your study?


Monetary incentives, including gift cards, are the most popular form of incentive, but incentives can also be:

  • Account credits or discounts
  • Charitable donations
  • Swag
  • Early access to a feature


The most important thing about your incentives is that they are valuable to your participants and that they get people excited about participating in your research. 

Types of incentives and when to offer them

Cash-based incentives

Cash-based incentives are an understandably popular incentive format from the participant side. Cash is straightforward—it’s easy to pay out, appeals to customers and non-customers, and gives participants the flexibility to spend it however they want.


There are drawbacks to cash incentives, however. For one thing, some participants are not able to accept cash—with government employees, for example, cash might be considered a bribe. Other participants—such as very high-income earners, current customers, or B2B prospects—might not be as motivated by cash as they would be by account credits, swag, or other types of incentives.


Cash-based incentives can also come with tax implications, depending on how much you’re paying and where both parties are located.


We recommend researchers use digital payment platforms like PayPal for cash-based incentives (rather than, you know, sending participants a stack of $20s). If you use User Interviews for recruiting participants for a study, you can choose to have us instantly process incentive payments through gift cards—we’ll also automatically issue 1099s for your tax records. 


Use cash-based incentives when you:

  • Want a simple rewards payout
  • Are looking to attract a diverse audience, including non-users
  • Are recruiting for B2C studies
  • Need a lot of participants for a quick study


Consider different methods if you:

  • Are recruiting internationally and don’t have a plan for converting currencies
  • Are looking to appeal to high-income earners or current customers
  • Are recruiting for B2B research
  • Want to include people like  government employees who cannot accept cash
  • Don’t want to deal with the tax implications


Gift cards

Gift cards are cash equivalents, redeemable at particular retailers and websites. They’re another popular incentive format. 


They appeal to both customers and non-customers, may be permissible in cases where people can’t accept cash, and—while they don’t offer participants the same flexibility on where to spend them—still give participants a degree of control over how to redeem their reward. And sometimes gift cards can be more appealing to high income earners than straight up cash.


But there are drawbacks here as well. If you’re recruiting from an international audience, bear in mind that the value of gift cards often doesn’t translate from country to country— participants in San Francisco are unlikely to appreciate a €50 gift card to Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, just as users in the Netherlands would find your generous offer of a $300 Applebee’s gift card rather worthless. 


In fact, many gift cards simply won’t appeal to some people at all, which is why we recommend offering participants the ability to choose their own gift card from a list of popular retailers. Incentives are always more valuable when they’re relevant to the recipient.


Another thing to consider is that many of the same bribery and ethical rules about not accepting cash incentives will apply to gift cards as well. And as cash-equivalents, gift cards can have the same tax implications as cash.


Use gift cards incentives when you:

  • Have a way to provide multiple gift card options
  • Are looking to attract a diverse audience, including non-users 
  • Want to broaden your study appeal to high-income participants
  • Are recruiting for B2C studies
  • Need a lot of participants for a quick study


Consider different methods if you:

  • Are recruiting internationally
  • Are recruiting for B2B research, especially with current customers
  • Want to include people who cannot accept cash equivalents
  • Don’t want to deal with the tax implications


Account credits or product discounts

Product discounts or account credits can often trump cash-based incentives when it comes to recruiting current customers.


If you’re recruiting consumers, this can be as straightforward as a coupon code for future purchases, or a reduced subscription price for services. 


With B2B research, you’ll want to consider whether the people you’re hoping to talk to are your users (people who actually use your product day to day) or the people in charge of making purchasing decisions or both.


If your users aren’t the same people involved in purchasing decisions for their team, they may be less motivated by account credits (they won’t personally see the reward—their company will). In this case, other types of incentives may be more motivating. But account credits can be a great way to appeal to B2B customers higher up the ladder. 


One benefit of using discounts and credits to incentivize participation in research is that it costs nothing upfront and there’s much less administrative overhead—you don’t have to worry about distributing cash or gift cards to individuals. It can also be a great way to encourage ongoing customer engagement with research.


But of course, this strategy is much less appealing to non-customers—and unhappy customers, too, for that matter.


Offer account credits or product discounts when you:

  • Want to cut down on upfront costs and tedious administrative work 
  • Are looking to recruit (satisfied) customers
  • Want to speak to people with direct purchasing power 
  • Have a plan for keeping track of credits


Consider different methods if you:

  • Want to recruit non-customers and B2B users without purchasing power
  • Are looking for a diversity of feedback, including from unhappy customers
  • Don’t have the authority or stakeholder approval to offer discounted rates


Swag

Don’t underestimate the power of good swag. There is, after all, a whole community of people dedicated to buying, selling, and trading Mailchimp monkeys. (Related side note: Do any other New England kids remember Dunkin Donuts’ Coolatta bears? Oh, to be a child in 2000...).


Swag—branded products that you give away for free—can be a great way to motivate die-hard fans and current customers. And if you already have swag on hand (hint: ask your marketing team), there’s minimal (new) cost to this strategy. Plus, it’s free advertising for your company.


However, like account credits and discounts, swag won’t appeal to everyone. Non-customers are less likely to be motivated by branded products, and no matter how cool your T-shirts are, they won’t pay the bills.


Offer account credits or product discounts when you:

  • Have swag to offer!
  • Are looking for a no (new) cost incentive strategy
  • Want to appeal to customers and fans
  • Are recruiting people who can’t accept cash or cash equivalents


Consider different methods if you:

  • Want to recruit a diverse group of participants that includes non-customers
  • Believe your audience is motivated by cash or cash-equivalents
  • Need longer time commitments from participants (in-depth interviews, diary studies)


Other incentive types

If none of the common incentive types outlined above feel like the right fit for your ideal participant profile, it may be time to get creative. 


Here are a few alternative incentive formats to consider:

  • Charitable donations—If your audience can’t accept cash or cash equivalents, donations can be a meaningful way to reward their time. Consider offering participants a choice between several charities to make this option even more relevant. Of course, this strategy only works if your audience is motivated by social impact.
  • Exclusive perks—You might consider offering participants exclusive or early access to things like beta versions of an app, a sneak preview of upcoming releases, customer workshops, etc. This strategy is similar to swag and product discounts, in that it will primarily appeal to engaged customers and users.
  • Large, lottery style rewards—Rather than offering many smaller incentives, you might consider entering participants into a lottery style drawing for a few larger rewards. (i.e., instead of paying 50 participants $75 each, you could offer participants a chance to earn one of three $1250 payouts). 


3. Calculate the correct incentive amount

Incentives are best when they’re tailored to the task you’re requesting your participants to complete, the time commitment involved, and how (in)convenient it is for users to participate. 


Some studies require more effort, time, and thought than others. For example, if you’re conducting a quick, unmoderated usability test, a lower incentive is probably enough to compensate your participants. On the other hand, if you’re conducting a weeks-long diary study that requires multiple interviews and diary entries, prepare to spend more on your incentives. 


As a rule, moderated user research studies warrant a higher incentive than unmoderated studies. That’s because unmoderated research can often be completed on the participant’s own time, while moderated research takes place at a specific time and requires more coordination and communication between the researcher and participants. 


Essentially, the longer it takes participants to complete a study, the higher their compensation should be. Ditto goes for effort—if participants have to commute to an in-person study, download new software, or make significant adjustments to their schedules, that effort should be reflected in the incentive amount.


We also recommend participants be paid different amounts based on their expertise. For example, if you need to talk to people about their grocery shopping preferences, you don’t need to recruit participants with any kind of specialized experience. You just need general consumers who buy groceries. 


But if you need to do research on the usability of a new EEG technology, you need to talk to neuroscientists with specialized training. Because you’re drawing on this very niche skill, you’ll have to pay more in incentives to make it worth your participant’s time. 


So wait… how much should user research participants get paid?

In our experience—and based on the number crunching we did to create our UX Research Incentive Calculator—we’ve found that the most successful researchers are the ones who pay the best incentive they can reasonably afford. 


But if you’re looking for a quick-and-dirty answer:

For most studies you should aim for $60 - $100/hr.


That’s a threshold, after which you may need to adjust your incentive amount based on things like how tricky it is to recruit your specific participants, how meaningful cash or cash-like incentives are to them, the nature of your study, and so on. 


For more detailed guidelines, see the quick reference guide below or use the UX Research Incentive Calculator to get personalized recommendations based on your study’s unique criteria.

User research incentives recommendations

Use this quick reference guide to plan your incentives depending on the type, length, and audience for your study. But remember: Our recommendations aren’t hard-and-fast rules. They’re meant to be starting points for a larger conversation about what incentive you should offer to get the best results from your research. 


Moderated studies with general consumers

For studies that require specific behaviors or demographics but do not require expertise in specific industries:

incentive recommendations for moderated studies with general consumers Remote: $80/hrIn-person: $100/hr

Moderated studies with professionals

For studies that require experts in specific fields or with specific job titles. 


incentive recommendations for moderated studies with professionals– Remote (baseline):	$100In-person (baseline): $125Remote, high earners ($150k+): $130In-person, high earners ($150k+): $165Remote, mid-level earners ($75-150k): $100In-person, mid-level earners ($75-150k): $125Remote, low earners (<$75k): $75In-person, low earners (<$75k): $90

For unmoderated studies:
research incentive table unmoderated studies - Consumers (baseline): $50Professionals (baseline): $75


To really dig into the weeds of this topic, check out our report, The Ultimate Guide to User Research Incentives, compiled from data from over 25,000 completed research sessions.

3. Decide how you’re going to distribute incentives 

Incentives should be distributed as soon as possible after each session. In fact, part of the appeal of digital gift cards and cash-based incentives is that it’s possible to send them to participants within seconds of wrapping up a session.


For longer projects like diary studies, compensation can be broken up and distributed at different times throughout the study to keep participant motivation high over a longer period of time.


Details of how and when you’ll distribute incentives should be clearly communicated in the study description and in emails to participants before and after the session.


To make sure the promised payout goes off without a hitch, you’ll need a plan for distributing incentives in a timely manner. This means collecting the information you’ll need ahead of time—email, address (if sending swag), etc—and keeping track of who has received what (and how much).


Or, if you’re using User Interviews and you choose to distribute incentives as gift cards, you can opt to have us handle distribution for you. Easy peasy.

Recruit with User Interviews and leave the gift cards to us

Sign up for free

Saying thank you

Paying your participants appropriately is important, but a little kindness and hospitality can go a long way too.


Treat each participant like an important guest, rather than an anonymous test subject. Always emphasize the value of their contributions, and thank them sincerely before and after the study. 


And do sweat the details. Make sure participants are aware of what’s required of them before the study, including any deal breakers such as an NDA. Be clear and professional in all of your communications, ask for consent before recording audio or video, and let people know they can take a break or leave if necessary.


Part of being an effective researcher is showing participants their input has value. Payment is one way of doing that, but don’t discount the impact of a good old fashioned ‘thank you’ as well.

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