Paying incentives for user research

It’s normal to pay people for their time when they help with research, but sometimes it isn’t appropriate.

Paying incentives to participants is acceptable in some types of research. You should think about the situation and consider ethical guidelines when deciding if payment or reimbursement is appropriate.  If you do decide to pay incentives, factor them into your research proposal and budget

Incentives and reimbursements 

Reimbursements are made to cover participant costs, such as travel expenses or equipment. 

Incentives are rewards that motivate people to take part in research, for example a gift card for completing a survey.  

Confirm the incentive is appropriate  

Before offering an incentive, confirm if the payment is appropriate. This will depend on the user research your doing and the participant's situation. For example, a payment may not be appropriate if it:

  • represents a conflict of interest
  • may become a form of indirect coercion for participants who are vulnerable or disadvantaged. 

To help you make a decision, check if your agency has a policy on paying incentives and read the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research.

Your responsibility  

You have a responsibility for participants both during and after your research session.

Think about these questions to help you decide if it is appropriate to pay an incentive: 

  • would the participant get involved without the incentive 
  • will an incentive influence the results 
  • does the participant have a relationship to your organisation 
  • is there a power relationship, for example the participant is a supplier or public servant 
  • does the incentive take account of the participant’s socioeconomic situation 
  • could it be seen as coercion if they are from a disadvantaged or vulnerable background 
  • is the incentive appropriate to the participant’s cultural background.
Once you’ve confirmed an incentive is appropriate, decide on the type of incentive you will offer. 

Pay incentives to participants  

Check your agency’s policy on paying people for research participation. Make sure that the incentive is appropriate to the participant’s background and personal circumstances. For example, offer a voucher or gift card for a store that the participant can travel to easily or that they can use online. 

Keep a record of which incentive you gave to which participant. You can manage this if you use gift cards by recording the card number and having the participant sign for it. 

Pay incentives through a recruitment agency  

When you use an agency to recruit participants, the incentive is typically cash or a voucher. The value will depend on the cohort that you are trying to reach and the length of the research session. You can ask recruitment agencies for advice on how much you should give.  

The agency can transfer the incentive to the participants for a fee once the research is complete. Avoid handling cash incentives yourself. 

You can ask the agency to hire a venue that has a host who can manage your participants and hand over the cash incentive on your behalf. For example, if your target group is seniors, they may feel more comfortable with a senior host. There is usually an additional cost for this, which you should factor into your research budget.  

Find agencies that recruit research participants on the Digital Marketplace