Why we don’t use research incentives by default

Helen Taylor

Our clients often assume that we will need to offer incentives to successfully recruit research participants. But our default at Lagom is not to incentivise our research. 

It often falls to me to talk clients through some of the risks of using incentives, based on our experience. 

Incentives may not lead to good research participants

In our experience, good research participants are not driven by a financial incentive. They are driven by a desire to have an impact, share their experience, make things better and support a topic they care about. 

In fact, we have only needed to offer incentives on three projects in the last three years. 

We have used incentives when:

  • the target users were not using the service in a professional capacity
  • we needed to recruit very quickly because of short project timelines 
  • the research was on a new service with no current user base

And even in these rare cases, while some accepted the incentive “as a bonus”, some still refused to accept it.

Incentivised participants can be less engaged participants

Over the years, I have noticed differences in the level of engagement with the research between incentivised and non-incentives participants.

For example, incentivised participants tend to be less likely to give well rounded answers during interviews. 

We’ve seen participants rush through our surveys, scoring everything the same, skipping all the open text questions, or skipping all of the questions except to leave their contact details to be entered into the prize-draw.

Interestingly, non-incentivised participants are more likely to ask our researchers what will happen next in the research.

Incentives can lead to lower quality data

We’ve learned to be particularly careful about how we interpret data from incentivised participant research. 

For example, we might have to remove survey responses which have clearly been rushed. And we can not analyse the outputs of interviews with insufficiently engaged participants.

Research that we can’t analyse costs projects time and money.

Our approach

Rather than immediately reaching for incentives, we put the time and resource into developing a thought-through, bespoke recruitment plan. The plan maps out where the users can be found and articulates the recruitment approach.

We focus on well written communication to engage users and give them an opportunity to help and make a difference to something. We’ve found putting time into the communication around the opportunity to help and improve something is a sufficient incentive for most participants.

And we work to realistic timelines. Yes, incentivising research can often quicken up the process of recruitment, but it can be at a cost to the quality of the data.  If it just needs a few more days to encourage participation, I think it’s worth taking the time.

Related Case Studies

Discovery and build of the Barnardo’s child sexual abuse centre website

In partnership with Binary Vision we were asked by Barnardo’s to run a GDS-aligned user research Discovery and build…

Alpha phase user research on road freight data for the Department for Transport

We were the research partner on the Department for Transport's alpha phase exploring the digital collection of road freight statistics data.

More from the Author

Helen Taylor

Operations and delivery lead

Helen Taylor 10/05/2024

Why you should involve clients in research planning from day one (if you can)

We put a lot of effort into research planning. But…

Helen Taylor 27/09/2023

It’s great to see the NHS England knowledge team making good use of Lagom research (and working in the open)

I really like it when our clients want to work…

Helen Taylor 16/07/2022

Overcoming the challenges of working with government teams new to Agile

I’ve been a delivery manager and Scrum Master on government Agile Discovery and Alpha digital projects for 8 years.