Compensating research participants

How do we compensate folks for their time in our design research activities? There are plenty of reasons to do so…

…but it can be challenging making this work on our projects.

Government employees

We generally cannot compensate government employees due to anti-corruption measures.

We can offer them a modest non-cash gift valued less than $20 like a snack, trophy/challenge coin or certificate, drawings of agency leadership in costumes (yep, someone did that once), t-shirt, or book related to their agency or profession. The employee may still decline, just in case, so it’s worth offering up front instead of surprising them, and they are limited to $50 per year from the same donor.

Everyone else

For firm fixed price (FFP) contracts

We could plan for these costs as their own “lab operations” FFP item, or itemized as Other Direct Costs (ODC), that does not need to be approved or cost-limited by the government. It may be considered a materials cost like data/hardware, event fund like a conference, or lab operations cost. This should include costs for recruiting, honoraria, facility/equipment rental or assistance, interpreters or other social assistance, and recordings.

If the contract is already written without these budget considerations, it’s very difficult. For such a project, we do not bill the client — it’s a 100% Truss overhead or G&A expense — but our government contracting officer must approve it, because it’s a contract activity. To take this route, do the following:

  1. Figure out whether the government agency has its own policy or procedure for paying participants, and either use that if it’s feasible or use it to guide the next steps here…
  2. Document why (benefits to objective, increased quality, reduced time in contractual terms) and how (budget, number/range of participants, ethical considerations, timeline, method of compensation).
  3. Work with the project’s Client Engagement Manager on how to pass it by both the contracting officer and Truss Practice Lead or COO if it’s >$10k)
  4. Get practice lead/COO approval
  5. Get contracting officer’s approval

For time & materials (T&M) contracts

Ideally, take it entirely out of Truss’ hands by writing into the contract—either from the beginning or as a mod (🔒 DOL’s for example)—that the client(s) will be responsible and accountable for compensating research participants. Additionally, write a decision record with the client’s project team (🔒 DOL’s for example) to clarify who and how someone from the client should compensate participants. For example:

  • All compensation will be paid out to participants from [sub-agency]
  • Research participants will be paid $[D] per hour, usually in a [M]-minute session
  • Targeting [S] sessions per month for [T] months with a budget of $[B]
  • [Person] will use the recruiting spreadsheet, which has participants’ name, email, when/whether they attended, how much to pay them, and a running burndown against the total budget
  • [Person] will purchase the gift cards and email it to participants by the end of the week of their session.



Our partner USDS managed recruiting and most of the research ops, including compensation. We did not have Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) approval to screen participants via a survey, and not much time to recruit (started at the same time as other research work), so USDS relied on advocacy agencies to recruit for us, allowing us to reach a fairly diverse group of folks. USDS’s researcher then used their budget to buy Visa gift cards at $50 per person, emailed to participants after all sessions wrapped (a few weeks long total). They did this for various folks in the US, but not for the federal and state employees we interviewed for other research (see “government employees” above).

Note that it took USDS, their (White House) lawyers, and procurement officers two years to get approval for the concept of compensating research participants. The researcher got that theoretical clearance but needed to provide a user justification memo for this particular research series. Initially they just tried a paragraph, but that reportedly wasn’t enough info. So they tried again with a page and a half of detail of why they should pay folks, and that did work but with no feedback about why. We don’t have those pages, but do consider writing in detail to address multiple concerns, including:

  • Why the user group is unlikely to participate on goodwill alone without incentive
  • An equity perspective of who should be involved and why pay them
  • How self-selection bias affects sampling and how that doesn’t include everyone we may want to talk to
  • Explanation that people with bad experiences with the government were unlikely to participate otherwise

Recruiting couldn’t start until this was approved (they can’t post-justify), which they were told could take 2 weeks, but it only took 4 days. They had to decide up front whether to make gift cards all digital or all mailed. It couldn’t be a mix, presumably due to (unknown) procurement rules. Then they had to wait for all research to be complete, fill out a spreadsheet for procurement about who to give gift cards to, and finally the researcher also messaged all the participants to watch out for a message from procurement. Procurement then worked with recruiting firms, who actually distributed them, presumably due to restrictions or discomfort around the government giving incentives directly to people.

For one part of this project with New Jersey’s DOL, a state official paid people through their existing policies to expedite this process.