4 Reasons Government Should Compensate User Research Participants 

Design researchers working in the private sector typically compensate user research participants who help improve a company’s websites, mobile apps and digital services. These participants devote about an hour of their time engaging in research methodologies, such as user interviews and exercises that uncover user pain points. Research sessions result in findings that guide critical design decisions in iterative, user-centered design processes.

Even as government leadership has understood the value of offering it, policy restrictions and concern about optics prohibit government researchers from offering compensation.

However, with government’s increased prioritization of inclusivity and accessibility in digital offerings, compensating research participants is more important than ever.

1. Building a truly inclusive government website or digital services requires direct engagement with a diverse range of user research participants.

Public-facing government websites and digital services must be designed to address the needs of everyone. And they must be as easy to use as possible for everyone. Recruiting a diverse range of participants for user research is critical to ensure that the website or service is both useful and easy to use for all.

Unlike the private sector, those who rely most on government websites and digital services are often the most vulnerable. This includes people with social risk factors such as poverty, disability, and limited proficiency in English. We must engage directly with these individuals to truly understand their unique needs.

For example, when testing web accessibility, digital accessibility experts like the World Wide Web Consortium recommend testing directly with users who live with a disability. These users rely on assistive technology, such as screen readers, in ways that able-bodied members of a design team are unable to replicate. Additionally, only about 30% of accessibility issues are caught with automated testing tools.

2. It’s ethical to compensate people who help government improve its digital services. Also, people with social risk factors are more likely to be low income.

Researchers take time from people’s busy lives to fulfill an identified business need, and that’s no different for user research participants who help government fulfill its business goals. When participants help us with our work, they deserve compensation for their time. Otherwise, we risk exploiting them. Exploitation is an even bigger concern when we recruit people with social risk factors.

Most individuals with a social risk factor are likely to live with lower socioeconomic status. According to the American Psychological Association, unemployment rates for people who are blind and visually impaired exceed 70%. The unemployment rate for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities is even higher at 80%. Meanwhile, “the median earnings of English proficient workers are 39 percent higher than [those with limited proficiency in English] workers” based on research from the Brookings Institute.

A conversation I had with Christine Fitzgerald, a disability advocate with the Silicon Valley Center for Independent Living, supports these findings. Fitzgerald is also a wheelchair and screen reader user. As Fitzgerald explains: “The majority of people I work with are low income or severely low income. Any compensation provided is much appreciated by them.”

3. Offering incentives makes it easier for government’s design research teams to recruit.

Research teams can recruit participants more quickly with an incentive in place, allowing them to meet aggressive deadlines.

Compensation also helps reduce “no-shows.” Studies show that people who accept compensation take their appointments more seriously. Incentivized participation reduces the research team’s time spent rescheduling interviews or frantically recruiting more participants as deadlines approach.

Compensation expands the pool of potential participants. While some people are willing to engage in research activities for free, many are not for understandable reasons.

4. Compensating user research participants is standard industry practice.

Providing gift cards to participants is standard industry practice in the private sector.

As of 2021, IDEO, a pioneer in the field of design research, offers participants $100 per hour for user interviews. Other private sector technology companies set up programs with disability advocacy groups for ongoing accessibility testing. Individuals with disabilities are offered hundreds of dollars to help optimize user experience for popular websites that everyone, not just those with a disability, relies on daily.

The bar for accessibility and inclusivity needs to be set even higher for government websites and digital services. We can start by learning from what’s worked for the private sector.

Julie Kim (she/her) is a Senior Product Designer at Coforma with nearly a decade of experience creating simple, effective, and engaging websites and mobile applications. Prior to her role at Coforma, she was a user experience lead at the city of San Jose. In both roles, she’s helped guide efforts toward building more inclusive, human-centered government services.

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