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Navigating the sticky web of research compensation

U.S. Digital Response
U.S. Digital Response
6 min readFeb 6, 2023


By: Sunita Ram, Technologist-in-Residence at U.S. Digital Response

This week marks Sunita’s last week of residency at U.S. Digital Response (USDR), where she has made a significant mark as a champion for user research. Embedded in our Digital Delivery team, Sunita’s empathy and passion for ensuring user’s voices are heard has helped inform a significant portion of USDR’s work. Below, Sunita has offered some words of wisdom for those in the public sector looking to compensate research participants.

There is a rising interest in government agencies to conduct user research in order to understand the needs of their constituents. With this human-centered mindset, many agencies are building up their internal research capacity and looking for ways to institutionalize research best practices into policy and legislation.

It is critical in user research to compensate research participants for their time, effort, and insights — especially when conducting research with vulnerable populations from marginalized communities.

Government officials are navigating complex rules and regulations in order to secure the necessary funds and provide incentives to participants. Through this article, we hope to shine the light on some of the forerunners and help those who are just starting to establish practices for research compensation in their organizations.

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.

A panel of user researchers and product managers collaborating with city and state government agencies suggested a few avenues to identify funding for user research:

  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.

Here are some inspiring examples of people who navigated complex bureaucratic processes to distribute research incentives.

  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.
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1. Check your jurisdiction’s Procurement Manuals/Procurement Desk Guides to find the purchase limit below which a bidding process is not required. For example: 60 minute qualitative interviews with 8–12 research participants would cost about $480–960 for research compensation and may fall under the stipulated purchase limit.

2. Identify a contractor, nonprofit or community foundation with whom you already have a contractual relationship to serve as the distributor of funds to residents.

3. Ask team members with government-issued credit cards to check if they can be used for the purchase of research incentives in your project.

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.

Here are a few examples that inspired us:

  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

As you begin to institutionalize compensation practices within your government agency, it can be valuable to lean on and reference published examples from other government agencies.

  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.

If you know of other organizations who have published guidelines and are translating research best practices into policy and legislation, please email our Digital Delivery team to spotlight their work in this space.

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!

Our talented USDR research volunteers have supported many government partners through this process. Please reach out to us if we can be of help to you.

If you have a compensation practice to share or know of an awesome reference that could help others who are setting up research practices within government, please let us know at and we’d be delighted to help spread the word.

We envision a future where every local and state government has instilled compensation of research participants as a core tenet of the research practice within their organization.

U.S. Digital Response has a team of pro bono professionals ready to help governments respond to the critical needs of their communities. Need help? Fill out this brief intake form to connect with USDR, and we’ll be in touch quickly.



U.S. Digital Response
U.S. Digital Response

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