The promise of environmental conservation incentive programs that provide direct payments in exchange for conservation outcomes is that they enhance the value of engaging in stewardship behaviors. An insidious but important concern is that a narrow focus on optimizing payment levels can ultimately suppress program participation and subvert participants’ internal motivation to engage in long-term conservation behaviors. Increasing participation and engendering stewardship can be achieved by recognizing that participation is not simply a function of the payment; it is a function of the overall structure and administration of the program. Key to creating innovative and more sustainable programs is fitting them within the existing needs and values of target participants. By focusing on empathy for participants, co-designing program approaches, and learning from the rapid prototyping of program concepts, a human-centered approach to conservation incentive program design enhances the propensity for discovery of novel and innovative solutions to pressing conservation issues.