Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

Navigating the sticky web of research compensation

Finding sources of funding:

In USDR’s research collaborations with government partners, we’ve learned that finding a source of funding for research compensation is a recurring challenge across many agencies.

  1. Build user research expenses into your project and program budgets in your next budget cycle.
  2. Look for an existing project budget or community engagement funds that could be used for research incentives.
  3. Check with other internal teams such as a digital, design, data or service delivery teams to see if they have existing vendors, tools, methods, and budget in place to conduct user research.

Finding ways to distribute the funds:

Once a source of funding is identified, the next step is to figure out a mechanism to distribute it.

  1. New York State Office of Information Technology Services used funds available for purchasing software to buy licenses to UserZoom. The research team provides the funds for participant incentives, UserZoom then handles all the compensation steps — and delivers incentives in the form of gift cards. This platform is also used by the research team to conduct remote research and usability testing.
  2. The City and County of San Francisco’s Digital Services (SFDS) team contracted with a consulting firm called CivicMakers, to recruit, engage, and compensate residents for user testing. CivicMakers handled user compensation as part of this contract and used grocery gift cards to pay research participants on behalf of the SFDS team.
  3. The Chief Digital Officer for the City of Boston, Julia Gutierrez, recently procured Tremendous, an online payouts platform where you can buy, track, and manage digital and physical payments. Their team is using this platform to offer gift cards to their research participants.
  4. Guilford County in North Carolina has successfully set up procedures to directly pay research participants via gift cards. However, in the interest of transparency and accountability, they have a stipulation that requires hand delivery of gift cards and signatures from the recipient. Though this may be challenging for remote interviews, in-person delivery of gift cards has proven to be helpful for Guilford’s recent research efforts centered around residents without internet access.
Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

Institutionalizing paid research participation:

User researchers and digital service teams within the government are developing policies and memos that formalize the processes around distributing incentives to research participants.

  1. The City of Saint Paul, Minnesota, passed a resolution authorizing the use of City funds to compensate participants to test technology products. In the resolution, Ashley O’Brien with the Office of Technology and Communication made a case that community members from underrepresented groups should be encouraged to participate in co-design activities and compensated for their time as respected partners.
  2. Mariela Taylor from the City and County of San Francisco’s Digital Services team drafted this memo and subsequently collaborated with multiple departments to jointly justify the need for research incentives to be raised from $25/hr per participant to $50/hr to compensate for the participant’s time, expertise, transportation costs, etc.
  3. The City and County of San Francisco’s Digital Services team is currently developing a gift card policy to determine exactly how a gift card is approved, bought, and tracked based on an existing DRAFT gift card policy put forth by the Office of Contract and Administration at
  1. The Technology Transformation Service’s (TTS) handbook serves as an excellent reference for internal guidance, templates, and protocols for research incentives.
  2. In their guidance for participant incentives, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) includes a protocol followed by the Director and/or their designee to review and approve research incentives.
  3. Government of Ontario’s online user research guide offers compensation guidance including information about why, when, whom, and how much to compensate. They also provide a template for a compensation form to record confirmation that incentives have been received by the participants.
  4. The article, Demystifying W-9s: A tax guide for research incentive programs, offers a clear breakdown of tax implications around payment of incentives to participants.

In summary

Whether you are just beginning to figure out how to compensate research participants or are in the weeds of navigating internal processes to make it happen, we hope these stories inspire you to keep on going. Yes, it is challenging but you can make research incentives a reality in your organization!



U.S. Digital Response (USDR) places experienced, pro-bono technologists to work with government and organizations responding to crisis, to quickly deliver services and infrastructure that support the critical needs of the public. We’re nonpartisan, fast, and free.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
U.S. Digital Response

Connecting governments and nonprofits with pro bono technologists and assistance to quickly respond to the critical needs of the public.