Before I was on the professional side of the user experience “glass,” I offered my expertise to the field in a different way: as a participant in a fairly large number of usability and market research studies. It started when I was a college student, looking for a quick way to make some extra pocket change. Friends told me about various survey bureaus and testing companies where I could submit a profile and get contacted about research opportunities. If I qualified for a study, I could earn cash or other perks — and sometimes even get to keep the products (a pair of socks here, a bottled milkshake there). I happened to fall into a demographic researchers wanted to tap, so I had my pick of studies for a while. I never made any significant cash, but it was nice to get a check for $10 or $20 every month or so — or convert a pile of fake-money “points” into Target gift cards or magazine subscriptions. And given my current career, I suppose those hours spent clicking “strongly agree” bubbles or returning taste-test notes paid off in other ways, too. Now that I’m on the other side, I think there’s a tendency to be skeptical of research participants. “People will do anything for the money” — right? Don’t get me wrong: Usability and user experience researchers are deeply appreciative of the people who take a bit of time out of their day to try out a new website, test a router set-up, or talk candidly about their personal experiences. But as a researcher, there’s a fear of being taken advantage of: Is this person really an IT specialist? Does this other one really bank online three or more times a week? Or are they just trying to slip through the screener, fool me, do the minimum required, mess up all my data, and walk out with a nice, fat check? I’m not going to claim money wasn’t my prime motivation, especially when I started participating in research. And as the paydays for studies get bigger — beyond just a $5 check or a couple of free lattes — I’m sure the temptation to twist key facts just enough to squeak into a study intensifies. But there are lots of reasons to participate in research beyond just the money at the end. In fact, the longer I spent as a research panel member, the more I saw the rewards shrink (from $10 to $5 to $2 to some points I could maybe redeem for something down the line) — and yet, I still kept clicking on the link that said “Take me to the Survey!” So why do it, if not for (or at least in addition to) the money? The major reasons I kept participating:

I like seeing new products first

. Always have, always will. I got a weird little thrill from seeing a particular body wash scent that I (and certainly hundreds of others) had recommended show up on drugstore shelves. I got to taste snacks that never went to market — some for good reason! And I got to see previews of what some of my favorite websites would look like after a redesign. Just knowing something that not everyone knew was a huge motivator for me.

I like making things better

. As a participant, you never really know how seriously your feedback will be taken or how much of a difference you’ll make — but I always wanted to try. If I really thought a product should be priced at $3 rather than $2 or $4, I had the chance to say so. If I thought a login screen was confusing or couldn’t find the right option for shipping an online purchase, maybe someone would fix it. And since most of my research opportunities were about products or services I actually used or would want to if they existed, there was a good chance those changes would directly benefit me.

I was curious about the research process

. This grew as I got more and more sucked into participating. Where did my feedback go? How did it mesh with what others thought? Why did some people just get an online survey link while others got invited in for a focus group? Could something I said actually make a product end up on (or not on) the shelves? What did the researchers do with all this data? (Fast-forward a few years, and I’d be in grad school, finding out.) I asked around the EchoUser research department, and my colleagues mentioned a few other reasons they’d seen participants come to studies:

  • A feeling of importance: “Someone’s listening to my opinion!”
  • An opportunity to air complaints.
  • The desire to know what’s coming up in a given industry.
  • An interest in “giving back” or doing something productive with free time.
  • A chance to try something before committing to a purchase.
  • An interest in learning something new.
  • A curiosity about getting a job in research. (Hey, worked for me!)

Yeah, the money’s great. It probably is what gets people in the door, most of the time. But there are other motivations for the people who might walk into your lab or click on your survey. And that’s something I try to keep in mind every time I catch myself rolling my eyes and saying, “Eh, they’re just here for the $100.”

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