Ecological momentary assessment (EMA) is a research approach that involves repeatedly sampling participants' real-world experiences as they occur in their natural environments. Compared to traditional retrospective self-report measures, EMA offers the ability to collect in-the-moment data on thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and contexts as they unfold over time. This can provide unique insights into phenomena that are dynamic, contextualized, and subject to recall biases when assessed retrospectively.

However, successfully implementing EMA protocols requires carefully balancing scientific rigor with participant burden. If not designed thoughtfully, EMA protocols can lead to high attrition rates and missed prompts that undermine data quality. Here are some best practices for maximizing participant compliance and engagement when developing an EMA study:

Understanding the Participants

The first key to creating a successful EMA study is understanding your participants. The study design must create a balance of personalization to fit into the daily routines of the individuals you are studying while capturing the data that is required to answer the study aims. 

  • Align the frequency and timing of prompts with the daily rhythms and lifestyle of your participants, including work hours, sleep habits, and other routine activities.
  • When selecting the type of data to collect, consider the cognitive load you're placing on your participants. Comprehensive data should not come at the cost of participant exhaustion.
  • Choose user-friendly devices. Deploy EMA on participants' own smartphones whenever possible, rather than unfamiliar study devices, to enhance comfort and usability. This “BYOD” (bring your own device) approach also eliminates the requirement for participants to have to carry a study phone with them throughout the day.

Enhancing Engagement

Keeping participants engaged in your study is a crucial aspect of EMA study designs. Strategies for enhancing engagement include:

  • Compensate promptly. Offer small incentives for each completed survey to reinforce participation. Include bonus payments if they complete a minimum number of assessments. Further, compensation does not always have to be monetary, especially when designing studies for kids, but can be incentives such as unlocking fun gifs, games, or jokes by completing the surveys.
  • Utilizing a gamified design can further boost engagement. EMA platforms like NeuroUX provide a gamified design resulting in improved adherence rates. 
  • To minimize participant dropouts, researchers should proactively communicate with participants ahead of time to anticipate any issues that may prevent participation. When feasible given the study design, participants should be offered the option to briefly pause and reschedule their involvement if unavoidable conflicts arise. Taking these steps can help ensure a smoother research process.

Optimizing Survey Design

The design of the EMA surveys themselves can significantly influence participant comfort and engagement. Here are a few key points to consider:

  • Keep surveys brief. Aim for short, concise surveys that participants can complete within a few minutes. Long surveys increase participant fatigue.
  • Deploy branching techniques. Vary survey questions based on time, location, or previous responses when feasible.
  • Ensure questions are clear and straightforward to prevent participant confusion.
  • Each question should be directly relevant to your research question to maintain participant interest.
  • Incorporate different question types like rating scales, sliding scales, checklists, etc. Free-input surveys are taxing.

Monitoring and Tracking

Once your EMA study is underway, a systematic monitoring and tracking approach is vital to ensure data quality and participant adherence. Essential points to consider are:

  • It is important to note that early adherence is seen as highly predictive of overall adherence, so outreach should occur during the first week if signs of non-adherence are detected.
  • Regularly monitor response rates and follow up with participants who have low response rates to understand any difficulties they might be experiencing.
  • Send automated reminders. Gently nudge participants to comply with prompts if engagement lags.
Investigator dashboard to keep track of your participant's compliance and adherence rates in your EMA survey study.

Ensuring Transparency and Ethical Considerations

Approach the EMA study design with a sense of responsibility towards the participants. Follow these guidelines for ethical considerations:

  • Have your informed consent clearly and in simple language state  the study's purpose, data use, data ownership, and any potential risks involved. As a rule of thumb, the consent form should be written at a 6th grade reading level. ChatGPT and other AI tools can help modify consent forms to meet grade-specific reading levels.
  • Provide clear instructions on how to participate in the study.
  • Ensure participants know they can withdraw at any time without negative consequences.

At NeuroUX, we understand the complexities of EMA study design, which is why we have designed a comprehensive, customizable, user-friendly, and gamified interface to enhance your research journey. Our intuitive approach has made us a favored choice among researchers worldwide. Reach out to us at or fill this form to learn more about our EMA platform.