I’m a huge fan of user testing. Getting your product in front of actual users and observing how they use it, what they get confused or frustrated about, and where they get the most (and least) value is a required step in iterating to a world-class product.
Most companies get this, and are happy to invite a handful of customers to the office and watch them use the product. However, many companies struggle with how they should compensate these fine folk who take time out of their day to come be guinea pigs.
Should we pay the customer? Maybe give them an Amazon.com gift card? Perhaps we should give them a few free months of service? Nope, negative, and nein.
Don’t give them a dime. You don’t need to.
Most customers would love to help improve a product they use regularly. People also love to feel like they are the center of attention and others are listening to them and watching them. Plus, many users melt to get a tour of the office and meet the people behind their favorite product. In other words, the customer will help you simply out of goodwill, and bringing money into the picture will only taint that generous feeling they have.
Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and author of Predictably Irrational, did an experiment to test the effect of monetary compensation on effort. He invited three groups of students to perform a mundane task (on a computer screen, drag a circle from the left of the screen into a box on the right of the screen) and he gave each group a different reward. One group got a little money ($0.50 for their time), one group got more money ($5.00), and one group got no money.
The group who got a little money performed the worst, on average they dragged 101 circles. The group that got paid better performed better – they dragged 159 circles. But the group who didn’t get paid anything performed the best, dragging 168 circles.
Back in the world of user testing this means there are two benefits to not paying your subjects. The first, more obvious reason, is that you will save the company money. But an even more important reason is if you don’t pay your testers you will likely get better results from the session. Unpaid testers will work harder and longer, giving you much better information.
Why is this so? Because there is no money changing hands the customer won’t view this user testing time with market norms in mind. They will not be subconsciously calculating what their time and effort are worth, and stopping when they feel they’ve hit their imaginary quota. Instead they will do this as a favor to you and the company, and no one wants to half-ass a favor.
Although money is not an option for reward, you can give the helpful customer a gift. This shows them you appreciate their time without having to pay them for it. This is akin to thanking a friend for making you dinner by bringing a bottle of wine to their house rather than offering them $50 for the meal. While fine liquor might not be the best gift to give a customer, a t-shirt, branded toy, or other piece of company swag is a nice thank you.
For curious minds, Ariely also ran the above experiment offering gifts as a reward instead of money. There was no major effect on performance. Students who were given small gifts, Snickers bars, dragged 162 circles. Students who received larger gifts, Godiva chocolates, dragged 169 circles. Students who got no gift dragged 168 circles.
Hopefully now you are armed with the knowledge of how to successfully incent customers who volunteer to come in for user testing. After all that, it would be hypocritical for me to expect any kind of payment for what you just learned. But just know that I will never turn down a nice gift. Even, say, a fine bottle of liquor.
One small disclaimer – you’ll note that in this post I’m talking about existing customers. I understand that in order to get new users to try your product and give feedback you may need to pay them, as they have no relationship with your company and therefore no reason to help. For these studies, services like UserTesting.com work quite well.