Guidelines for Paying UX Research Participants

Kathryn Brookshier
Jun 5, 2018 · 5 min read
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Gift cards are a common way to reimburse research participants

The outcomes of UX research greatly rely on the participants you are able to recruit for your studies. Compensating the participants appropriately is a great first step to encourage your target users to take part in your study, and plays an influential role in if they show up or not. This payment is called a gratuity or honorarium.

There are three major types of participants you may want to recruit for your UX research studies:

  • Any person for a quick online test
  • Typical consumers for an in-person study or other in-depth qualitative research
  • Specialized professionals for an in-person study or other in-depth qualitative research

Is your UX team just getting started? A gift card drawing is a great way to keep costs low while still gaining valuable insights.

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Calculating the rate you pay

What you pay depends on a variety of factors, including the time required to participate and the effort required to source the participants.

Pay rate: $15–20/hour

Common use case: click test, card sort, survey, or tree test for a consumer product with a wide audience sourced through an online platform such as Mechanical Turk; guerrilla research.

Justification: the U.S. is moving toward a “living wage”, which is quoted at $15/hour. This also makes it really easy for the researcher to calculate (1 minute = $0.25, 2 minutes = $0.50, 3 minutes = $0.75, etc).

When to pay: upon completion of the task.

Examples:

  • A click test that takes about 1 minute to complete: $0.25/participant * 100 participants = $25 total
  • A card sort that takes about 10 minutes to complete: $2.50/participant * 30 participants = $75 total
  • Guerrilla research that takes 15 minutes: $5/participant * 10 participants = $50 total

Pay rate: $50–125/hour

Common use case: usability study, interview, diary study

Justification: consumers need to spend time with you, and may need to travel to reach you. Consider paying a higher rate especially when participant may need to drive 30 minutes each way to attend in addition to the time they spend in the study.

When to pay: at the beginning of the study for one-time participants. This balances ethical considerations (no participant should feel forced to answer questions they don’t want to, and should be able to leave if their schedule requires) and practical considerations (I’ve conducted over 100 in-person sessions, and no one has ever walked out on me before the study was scheduled to end). Pro-rated per session with a completion bonus for longitudinal studies.

Examples:

  • A usability study for 45 minutes: $100/hour * 3/4 hour = $75 per participant
  • An interview for 30 minutes: $100/hour * 1/2 hour = $50 per participant
  • A diary study with 3 installments of 30 minutes each: $150/hour * 1/2 hour * 3 installments + $100 completion bonus = $325/participant

Pay rate: $200–500/hour

Common use case: usability study, interview

Justification: industry professionals often have tight schedules and make significant amounts of money. In order to entice them to participate, they will often require a higher honorarium.

When to pay: at the beginning of the study for one-time participants; pro-rated per session with a completion bonus for longitudinal studies.

Examples:

  • A usability study for 1 hour: $300/hour * 1 hour = $300 per participant
  • An interview for 30 minutes: $400/hour * 1/2 hour = $200 per participant

Pay rate: $10–100 gift card drawing, or unpaid (a chance to impact the product)

Common use case: survey, remote interview

Justification: many startups or new UX teams have little to no research budget. That shouldn’t stop you! Low budget research work paves the way for fully funded research in the future.

When to pay: pick a date for your drawing and mark it on your calendar. Upon completion of the research, randomly select one participant, and contact them to congratulate them. To note: I’ve seen teams “forget” to do the drawing. Your participants trust you! Do right by them select a winner.

Examples:

  • A new UX team at a medium-sized company got a small budget approved for research. They email a survey to their customers; after the survey closes, a participant is randomly selected to win a $50 Amazon gift card.
  • A startup wants to interview their users. They send a recruitment survey to their email subscriber list for a remote interview, letting potential participants know their feedback will influence the product. They join a video conference with you for 20 minutes. You write them a thank you note after.
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Cash, digital money, or gift card?

As a rule of thumb, never pay participants with cash. It’s too hard to track, both on the business side (“where’s that stack of $50s we keep for research participants, Robert?”) and for legal purposes (“the participant signed that she received $75 in cash with the following serial numbers on the bills”).

Instead, consider PayPal or a gift card from Visa, Amazon, a grocery store, or your own business. It’s easy to store in the office and track payments to participants so that everyone is in agreement that payment was received.

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Adjust according to your needs

Keep in mind, all of the above examples are only guidelines! You should adjust your rates based on your particular business needs.

Just remember: higher honorariums will make the recruitment process faster, no-show rates lower, and increase completion of your studies. (Do consider, however, that a well paid honorarium will interest a wider audience. Be vigilant during the screening process.) Don’t skimp — you’ll get the best outcomes if you compensate your participants appropriately.

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