Understand how much to pay research participants to draw in your ideal audience and minimize no shows
Researchers seeking to understand how to fairly and effectively structure incentive payments for user research studies
Want to know what you should offer participants in your user research study to optimize attendance? We’ve run the numbers. This chapter will help you figure out how much to compensate participants depending on the type of audience you’re targeting and the conditions of your study.
To get really useful results you need to capture the right audience. That means relying on favors from your friends and family can only get you so far.
So how should you incentivize people to participate in your study?
The first guiding principles are pretty intuitive.
On board so far?
Great. Now let’s get into the details.
Use this quick reference guide to plan your incentives depending on the type, length and audience for your study.
For studies that require specific behaviors or demographics but do not require expertise in specific industries
For studies that require experts in specific fields or with specific job titles
Note: highly specialized professions (e.g. Oncologists, Surgeons, Orthodontists, etc.) may require even higher incentives or non-monetary incentives
When it comes right down to it, incentives are about attracting quality applicants, getting a large volume of applications, and then getting people to show up for your study.
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. That goes for everyone. No matter how busy they are or how much money they make.
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 perhaps a few other folks from your team, hanging at the last minute.
It’s best to pay participants immediately upon completion of the study.
Online payments (like PayPal), prepaid credit cards, or gift cards for widely-appealing vendors like Amazon are your best bet for payment.
Be aware that if you’re targeting non-users, offering incentives tied to your own products may be seen as a conflict of interest and could actually bias your results by attracting only those who already know and like what you have to offer. Most participants prefer cash, or cash-like incentives.
For particularly high-level professionals like, say neurosurgeons or rocket scientists, monetary incentives don’t have the same pull. Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner for GV, formerly Google Ventures explains how certain experts often need to be treated differently:
I typically offer a $100 gift card for customer interviews. That’s not going to cut it with these customers. Some people may be enticed by a larger “honorarium” or charitable donation made in their names. But experts often respond more to professional incentives, such as sharing a version of the research results, previewing a new or advanced technology, or giving them credit in a public way.
Depending on your audience, financial incentives could actually have the opposite of the intended effect. Consider offering recognition or special access to something instead.
Paying your participants appropriately is important, but a little kindness and hospitality can go a long way too.
To help participants feel comfortable (and build a positive reputation) treat each of them like an important guest, rather than an anonymous test subject.
Always emphasize the value of each participant’s contributions, and thank them sincerely before and after the study. If people feel like they have an important role to play, they’re more likely to show up and be forthcoming with input.
Lastly, 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 before recording anything with audio or video, and let people know they can take a break or leave if necessary.
No matter the pay scale, there are simple things that you can do to reduce the likelihood that your participants will bail on you. Incentives make it hard for people to say no; being buttoned up on logistics makes it easy for them to say yes. The ol’ one-two punch, if you catch my drift.
It comes down to being strategic in the time leading up to your actual study.
Giving clear instructions for how to participate is incredibly important. If the study is online, provide detailed written instructions for how to login to your program, and instruct your recruits to test any special equipment required, such as a camera or microphone in advance.
In the days leading up to the study, send multiple communications including at least one that requires a response. A reminder phone call the day before is a good idea as well. If you don’t hear from someone at all in the days leading up to the study, consider replacing them with someone else.
For in-person studies, give detailed directions for how to arrive at your location by car or public transit, including information about how to get in the building and what to do once inside. Be sure to include your phone number in case someone gets lost, and leave a short window of extra time before you actually plan to start to account for any latecomers and allow people to get settled.
Bottom line, know who you’re recruiting and match the your incentives to your audience. Maximizing ROI isn’t as simple as spending as little as possible; it’s about spending just as much as necessary to get your desired results.
To be a good researcher, you have show 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.