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 many types of research. It reflects your appreciation for the participants’ input to the service.

You can thank people for their time in many ways. In some types of research, paying incentives isn’t appropriate.

If you do decide to pay incentives, factor them into your research proposal and budget.


Meeting the Digital Service Standard

Planning your research will help you meet the following criteria:

The Digital Service Standard guides teams to build services that are simpler, clearer and faster.

Work out if you will pay an incentive

Paying incentives for participation in user research is common practice. Incentives are used by private businesses and governments around the world.

Incentives are rewards that can motivate people to take part in research. They are different to reimbursements for costs such as travel expenses.

Check if your agency has a policy around paying incentives for user research. The Australian Government National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research may also help guide your decision.

It’s usual to pay incentives to people who take part in usability testing. But there are some other types of research where incentives might not be appropriate. For example, payment may:

  • represent a conflict of interest
  • become a form of indirect coercion (where the participants are vulnerable or disadvantaged)

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

Think about these questions to help you decide about paying incentives:

  • What is the participant’s relationship to your organisation? Is there a power relationship? Is the participant a supplier or public servant?
  • Would an incentive influence the results?
  • Would the participant get involved without the incentive?
  • 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?

What to pay and how

If you’ve worked out that it is appropriate to pay an incentive, decide on the type of incentive you will offer.

Paying incentives through research recruitment agencies

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.

If you’re using a recruitment agency, avoid handling cash incentives yourself. The agency, for a fee, can transfer the incentive to the participants once the research is complete.

You could also ask the recruitment 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.

You can find agencies that recruit research participants on the Digital Marketplace.

Paying incentives to participants

If you don’t use a recruitment agency, you can still 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.