If money talks, what does it say to a research participant?

A handful of cash used as incentives in design research.

NZ $50 notes, participant-bound. The bird on each one is a native Kōkako. Voted bird of the year in 2016. Ridiculous.

No, I haven’t won the lottery, the $$$ in the clip are to pay research participants. That’s business as usual for field research, and I’ve distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in my time. It’s either cash or a voucher equivalent, and it’s always appreciated. 

It’s routine to pay research participants, but I believe the When? and How? of doing this can influence their behaviour. This is why I always pay participants with folding cash within minutes of meeting them in their home or workplace, rather than at the tail end or by (much more convenient) bank transfer the next day. 

Paying people after you’ve spent time with them can introduce an unwanted power dynamic, a performative aspect, or a sense there’s a right/wrong way to behave. These influences can cause people to change what and how they choose to share or show and what they edit out. Or say/do things because they think it’s what we’re looking for. 

None of this is good news for the quality of the conversation or the research, but I’ve seen enough signals to believe it’s an impact worth avoiding. 

Hearing versions of ‘I hope I’ve earned my $100?’, made me switch to paying beforehand. Hearing versions of ‘What!? You’re brave, paying me before you even know how I use the product’ have kept me paying upfront, and explaining to the participant why. 

Paying upfront is a power-switch moment, where you’re demonstrating to the participant it’s their time, not performance you’re paying for. I’ve seen participants visibly relax, as they reset their perceptions of what they might have to offer, and feel any pressure to perform fade away. Especially when I articulate the terms of this value exchange aloud while they’re holding the money, not me. 

And yes, I always make them count it. Because … I’m human too.

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