Equity in User Research: Incentive Payments and Recruiting

By Shannon Ford, Senior Manager - Human-Centered Design, Alluma

In the field of human-centered design research, it’s common practice to pay people to participate in focus groups, interviews, usability tests and other types of research. We pay them for their time, experience, and perspectives. These contributions are extremely valuable, and yet the compensation given to individuals who participate in research about the social safety net does not often reflect the value of these contributions. It is time for that to change.

Compensation is usually determined by the type of research being conducted and the time commitment involved, as well as how difficult it is to find the “right” people. Sometimes it is also based on how much the participant’s time is “worth”; for example, rates may run higher for certain highly paid professionals like doctors or lawyers. For most of the projects I have worked on in the for-profit space, compensation has ranged from $100 to $200 for a single, hour-long usability test, and even more for a half- or full-day shadowing or ethnography. I’ve also paid people $25 for an “intercept” interview, where you stop someone in public and ask if they can chat for five to ten minutes while being recorded. For a short (10-15 minute) usability test that participants take on their own time, one of the platforms we use pays $15.

To make meaningful improvements to social service programs and systems, we must truly understand how people — including those seeking support through the safety net — experience them. Their insights cannot be gleaned elsewhere, making them priceless.

Recently, we learned that a large, statewide social services IT project was offering participants $20 to engage in an hour-long user research session. That amount is so outside of common practice, it leads one to question the value placed on getting participant insight and the broader issue of equity. If we want to make meaningful improvements to social service programs and systems, we have to truly understand how people experience them. And that means the most critical insights will come from “people on the ground,” whether they are people seeking support through the safety net, or the people who help them navigate these systems. These are insights that cannot be gleaned elsewhere, making them priceless.

When we offer poor communities a low dollar amount for research, we not only devalue their time and insights, we do something far worse: we further erode their trust in the very programs and systems we are trying to improve. Why would someone whose experience isn’t valued think that program administrators and leaders value them as an individual?

For some communities, this distrust stems from historical experience as well. For example, the current distrust some communities of color have in vaccination stems from the many examples where people of color were experimented on without their full knowledge or compensation, coupled with the false assurance they would receive medical care. For these individuals, who were also poor, their time, experiences, and health had no value, according to those running the study. Paying someone a paltry sum today to participate in research reinforces that we have learned little from history.

It is time we paid individuals who participate in research not the sum we think they will “accept” but what their time and insights are truly worth. This is the equitable approach. And the same should be said for what we pay community-based organizations (CBOs) to help us recruit people for research, usually from their existing pool of clients. Professional recruitment firms could get paid around $150 to find one such participant. Most of the time, it is unlikely that the organization conducting the research is paying a CBO with anything other than a “thank you.”

If we truly want to make meaningful improvements to programs and systems, we must understand the experience of those using the services in question. And that starts with equitably valuing the insights of all.