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User Research Costs: Considerations for Planning & Budgeting

Kerrin McLaughlin,

Associate Experience Designer and Researcher

It’s a myth that user research must be a tremendously costly and drawn-out effort in order to be effective. You don’t need a dedicated usability lab or to spend thousands of dollars on eye-tracking hardware to talk to your users. Users are more comfortable meeting virtually than ever, and new tools are popping up every day to help your research effort. 

Getting started with user research is easier and more cost-effective than ever—good news, because it’s vital to building a successful product (learn why in our prior article, Why You Shouldn’t Skip User Research). In this article, we’ll help you understand how much you should budget for user research on your next project so that you can weigh these costs against the additional value that it will provide to your business. You’ll be happy to learn that you don’t need to spend a lot to get actionable insights.

How Much Does User Research Cost?

The most important part of user research is making sure you are talking to people who truly fit your target audience—not just testing prototypes with your coworkers and friends for their opinions.

Recruiting users can be the most expensive part of the research process, depending on how many people you need and how specialized of an audience they are. The price comes down to two factors:

  1. The cost of incentives for the user participating in the research, and
  2. The tool you are using to recruit these users

Some tools, like UserTesting.com, build in the cost of recruiting to their platforms. However, you’ll have more control over your participants by recruiting yourself.

User incentives for participating in your study

If you are recruiting participants yourself, it is important to consider incentives when pricing the project. An incentive is the compensation you provide a research participant for their time, and considering the immense value their insights will bring to your product, incentives shouldn’t be skimped on. The incentive is what attracts a user to want to participate in your study, so a higher incentive will result in a larger pool of higher quality candidates to choose from. Professionals in high earning fields will generally require a larger incentive than other consumers to be persuaded to participate. Depending on your product, you may be able to offer a non-monetary incentive participants will be interested in, like free or beta access to your product. 

UserInterviews.com has a great breakdown of the appropriate incentives to pay participants based on the type of study:

Note: we touch on the difference between moderated, unmoderated, and other study methods in our article, Why You Shouldn’t Skip User Research.

User recruiting methods 

Let’s breakdown the costs of a few recruiting methods out there and their pros and cons.

Tap into your existing user base

The best place to find research participants who are likely to use your product is through your product itself. Do you have an email list you could send a blast to about an upcoming study opportunity? Or, you could use a popup or banner on your website advertising your incentive for participating like we did for American Kennel Club.

Recruiting Cost: Free + the cost of participant incentives

Pros: Actual product users; no recruiting tool fees

Cons: Time-consuming to recruit; need to configure scheduling and incentive payments yourself

Use a stand-alone recruiting tool

Many recruiting tools exist to connect participants of all demographics and backgrounds to researchers wanting to talk to them. We prefer this option when it’s not possible to recruit a product’s user base directly. We’ve found that the participant pool is pretty diverse and you can use a combination of demographic filters and screener questions to find participants pretty close to your target audience, even if they’re niche. Two of our favorite recruiting tools are UserInterviews.com and Respondent.io. Normally these types of services charge a fee on top of the incentives you’ll pay directly to the participants. 

Recruiting Cost: Service charge + the cost of participant incentives. For example, Respondent.io charges a 50% service charge based on the cost of the incentive, so if you paid an interview participant $100 the total cost would be $150 for that interview. There’s no additional platform or project fees as of writing. 

Pros: Large database of high quality participants; helps to handle scheduling and payment 

Cons: Potential that someone isn’t who they say they are; audience not actual users of your product; pricier

Use a research tool with a recruiting option

If you choose to go the route of using a research tool like UsabilityHub.com or UserTesting.com to help conduct your research, often they include an option to tap into their user base to run the tests. While this option might work if you’re looking for the opinion of a broad target audience, we’ve found that this option doesn’t give you enough precision if you want to recruit for demographics beyond the basics like age and gender. The price varies greatly depending on the type of research the tool offers. We’ll discuss their costs in the next section.

Recruiting Cost: Varies greatly. UsabilityHub.com often charges $1-$6 per participant, plus $80 a month for access to the platform. UserTesting.com charges $49 per test for the first 15 tests, but after that their model jumps to $20,000 for an all-access annual plan.

Pros: All-in-one access to both testing tool and recruiting; easy to set up

Cons: Limited database of participants; hard to target specific user types, can be very expensive.

Buy digital ads

When we need a lot of participants for quantitative research such as a survey, we sometimes turn to digital ads. Platforms like Facebook, Reddit, and other social media can offer an inexpensive way to access users of a certain demographic with specific targeting options. If you want to survey pet owners, it’s as easy as selecting this as an interest for the audience or finding a subreddit they’d frequent. In addition to paying for the ad, you still need to think of an incentive to entice ad viewers to click — we’ve done giveaway drawings for survey participants. 

Recruiting Cost: Ad cost varies depending on complexity of audience and participants needed, budget $100-200 for the ad + cost of participant incentive 

Pros: Low cost; access to a large audience; advanced targeting capabilities

Cons: Time to set up ad account and create and target the ad

Find them out in the world, online or off 

This last recruiting method is sometimes known as “guerilla research” — going out into the wild to find your participants in their natural habitats and politely and professionally approaching them with a quick prototype or a survey. Offline, this could involve going to a location where users frequent — for our client HeliNY we talked to passengers at the helicopter launch pad and to hotel concierges recommending the product. For New York Road Runners we studied people using the product in the RUNCENTER space. Online, this might involve finding people to talk to on forums or groups for the topic of your product — just be wary of the community’s rules and don’t be spammy.

Recruiting Costs: Free + the cost of any incentives

Pros: Quick; inexpensive

Cons: You may not find the people you need

How does insourcing or outsourcing impact your user research costs?

Let’s say you’re conducting a medium-sized research effort for your product’s upcoming redesign that consists of:

  • 10 user interviews at 30 minutes each (we find that it can be hard to see commonalities with less than 10) 
  • Usability testing of the current product (same rule of 10+ here)
  • Tree testing of the site’s current navigation (we recommend a sample size of no less than 50)
  • On-site survey

Outsourcing user research to an experienced partner like ExpandTheRoom

The cost of outsourcing the user research effort described above to an experienced partner like ETR will depend on your unique needs and complexities, but using a lean approach, it can be as inexpensive as $15,000 for a solid base-level study. By working with a partner like ETR, you’ll gain the benefit of an experienced team of professionals who will take care of setup and uncovering insights, so the difference should be well worth it. 

Any of the research methods can end up being standalone as well. For example, you may not need an entire research package but instead just want to make sure usability testing is incorporated into the development of a new product feature, in which case the pricing can run you somewhere around $3,000-$4,000 per iteration. The research efforts discussed above are just some examples of a myriad of techniques to use when conducting user research that can be scaled and repeated throughout the design process.

Pros: Expert research team to set up studies and analyze results; saves a lot of time; surfaces actionable insights; often delivers the highest ROI

Cons: More expensive than doing it yourself; requires time and effort to onboard partner

DIY cost for user research

Here is a breakdown of sample costs for a DIY effort if using some of the methods for recruiting and testing discussed above. The time estimates assume your researcher is experienced with these methods — expect to add 5-10 more hours to each method to account for a learning curve if not. 

In order to conduct testing yourself, you’ll often have to rely on user research tools and services, which add an additional cost. These tools can help save time by handling parts of the setup and running the research. Some of the services often part of a standard toolkit include Usability Hub, Optimal Workshop, Hotjar, and UserTesting. We’ll include an estimate of these tools’ costs in our breakdown of the DIY cost.

Interview Cost

External Expense: $1.5k

Internal Effort: Around 20-25 hours to prep, conduct, and unpack interviews

Calculated using Respondent.io for recruiting with an incentive of $100 per participant for 10 participants— they charge a 50% service fee.

Survey Cost

External Expense: $139-$239

Internal Effort: Around 15-20 hours for setup and analyzing results 

Calculated using Hotjar for running the survey and ads for recruiting — it would be less if you use your own audience

Tree Testing Cost

Estimating 50 Responses

External Expenses: $566

Internal Effort: Around 15-20 hours for setup and analyzing results

Calculated using Optimal Workshop for recruiting and running the test 50 times

Usability Testing Cost 

External Expenses: $490

Internal Effort: Around 25-30 hours to prep, conduct, and unpack sessions

Calculated using UserTesting.com for both recruiting and testing with 10 users

Total DIY Approach Cost

External Expenses: ~$3,000

Internal Effort: ~95 hours of time

If you value your internal team’s time at around $75/hour, then your total cost is $10,125.

Pros: Saves a bit of money up-front; opportunity to learn about and repeat processes yourself 

Cons: Takes up more of your time; runs the risk of inactionable results if you aren’t experienced with recruiting and asking the right questions; more risk than working with a proven partner

Ultimately, if you have a team experienced in user research and need to save money up-front, the DIY approach might make the most sense. But if your budget allows, consider engaging with a team of expert researchers. The bottom line is that DIY testing may be cheaper, but without an experienced research team it will be difficult and time-consuming to recruit, set up the study correctly, interpret results, and make actionable next steps. There’s no substitute for an experienced team with a track record of results.

If you need an expert team of researchers to help make your project a success, consider reaching out to ETR to discuss your unique user research needs.

Kerrin McLaughlin

Associate Experience Designer and Researcher