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Paying Incentives for Federal User Research

Paying incentives to test participants is standard practice in research and usability testing. While some people may be willing to participate for free, many aren’t. Incentive payments help ensure people will take the time to travel to your office and give you 30, 60 or even 90 minutes of their time. However, government researchers and user experience specialists have limitations on how—and how much—they can pay participants. Recently, federal user experience practitioners discussed the mechanics of how to get the right payments to the right people for the right research. As always, you’ll want to check with your general counsel to make sure it’s allowable to compensate participants before you get started. For example, at GSA we can’t pay participants directly or through vendors.

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Some agencies hire vendors to recruit and pay the participants, while others do it themselves. Some agencies are restricted to one approach or another, but some are able to choose. Here is some guidance for using both approaches.

Using a Vendor

  • You can contact local professional associations to help you find recruiting firms in the locations where you are working.
  • You will have to pay the vendor recruiting fees on top of the incentives, so be sure to include them in your budget.
  • You will probably need to negotiate terms of the contract with your agency’s General Counsel or Procurement Office before working with a vendor.
  • The vendors will issue the payments directly to the participants at the end of each month.

Doing it Yourself

  • Payments: Your CFO’s office will be able to tell you if you can pay participants directly and what methods you can use to pay participants (cash, check, physical or electronic gift cards, etc.).
    • You will need to develop a payment process (including receipts, if needed).
    • For checks: Figure out who can sign the checks and work with their schedule to be sure you have checks when you need them. Make sure participants know ahead of time that you are paying by check, so they have a way to cash it.
    • If you can’t pay directly, you will either have to use a vendor or find people who will participate for free.
  • Finding participants: This can be difficult, but local universities can help. They may even be able to offer classrooms as testing locations.
  • Testing locations: If you test in a public place, such as a library or university, and are only asking people for a few minutes of their time, you may not need to pay incentives.

Thanks to members of the UX community for their contributions to this article.

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