A table screen showing the word "ethics"

Conducting Ethical User Research

by Ditte Hvas Mortensen | | 16 min read

In any type of research that involves human participants, it’s important to consider the ethics of the research project. That is also the case when you do user research. You are responsible for your participants’ wellbeing, for representing them honestly, and for keeping their personal information safe. That is a big responsibility, so it’s important to know what to consider when you plan to do user research so as to keep your project ethically sound. Here, we will show you some of the most important rules for doing ethical user research so that you can ensure that your own research is indeed ethically sound.

Unlike academic research, where an ethics committee must approve research involving human participants, there are often no clear regulations when you conduct user research for a private company. (In some countries, however, specific legislation is in place about obtaining consent and collecting and managing personal information—legislation you must find and abide by.) Since user research typically involves either active human participation or analysis of people’s data—e.g., their activity in an app or on a webpage—it’s primarily up to you to consider how to be respectful and honest in your approach.

You should primarily consider the ethics of your research for moral reasons, but a more practical reason is that you need to protect your reputation with your customers and for posterity (especially as word travels fast and feedback lasts in the digital age). Social networking service Facebook learned this the hard way in 2014 when it published a study which revealed it had manipulated the newsfeeds of 689,000 Facebook users. For a week in 2012, the users’ newsfeeds showed content that was either happier or sadder than the average user’s newsfeed. At the end of the week, Facebook found that the users who had been presented with happier content posted more happy words than previously; meanwhile, the users who had been presented with sadder content posted more negative words than previously. The difference between the two user groups was minor, but when the research became public, it caused outrage—which is particularly understandable regarding the sadder content. Criticism of Facebook was widely published across the internet, and the newspaper The Guardian ran a poll, the results of which showed that 84% of respondents had lost trust in Facebook.

“To Facebook, we are all lab rats.”
—Vindu Goel, in the first line of a New York Times article on Facebook’s experiment

Most of the criticism centered on the ethics of Facebook’s experiment. People were angry that Facebook had done the study without the consent of its users and that the potentially negative emotional effects on people who had unknowingly participated in the experiment didn’t justify what could be gained from the study. Following the backlash, Facebook issued an apology announcing a new set of guidelines for how it would handle research in the future.

Screenshot of Facebook.

© Simon, CCO Public Domain.

Facebook is an extreme example of a huge company with the ability to impact millions of users that did not properly consider the ethics of its user research. A furore resulted, but Facebook could weather the storm—after all, closing a Facebook account closes a lot of doors for someone who likes to stay well (and visibly) connected. Still, even when you do user research on a much smaller scale, knowing how to ensure that your research is ethical is absolutely crucial. In the following, we have gathered a list of the most important aspects to consider if you want to ensure that your user research is ethical.

How to Ensure that your User Research is Ethical

1. Be Honest

You should be honest with your participants about the purpose of your research, whom you are doing it for, and how you are going to use the results. That way, participants can give their informed consent to the research and will not be surprised if they encounter mentions of your study or your results later. In some cases, though, you might not be able to tell the participants everything right away. Sometimes, knowing which company you work for will influence their replies. It could be that they like or dislike your brand or that they have experience with your product or service that will influence what they expect from it. Other times, knowing the purpose of your research will influence how participants act or answer questions, because they will want to help you out by giving you the results they think you are looking for—a nice gesture from their side of things but certainly not what you want if your research is to provide a solid foundation for a real-world endeavor involving users.

Scrabble tiles spelling

© NY, CC BY-SA 3.0.

If you are in a situation where you need to hold back information, you should give participants the full set of information as soon as possible—that way, they will have a chance to withdraw their consent if they want to (although you should probably reconsider your user research if you think it is going to cause participants to withdraw their consent once they understand the purpose).

2. Be Sensitive

Whenever you do user research, think about how the participant experiences the situation. Some participants might be nervous if they are testing something, so you should put their minds at ease and let them know that they can’t do anything wrong. If you think that sensitive or private information might come up during your research, you should ensure that only one or two people participate in the session.

If you are doing research in countries where gender or status differences between researcher and participant might be an issue, be sensitive to whichever local norms apply, and don’t go against them. It is better to reformulate your research design or to get help from colleagues or others than to do research that individuals in your surroundings would think inappropriate.

3. Represent Your Participants Accurately

When you analyze your research or present your results, always represent what your participants have said and done honestly. When we do user research, we often have preconceived notions about what we think the results will look like—or what we want the results to look like. It’s important not to search for examples of what you expect your participants to do. That’s subjective and misleading, rather like reacting to reality before it happens—after all, you can’t choreograph real people in their environment; you have to monitor them instead. Be open and listen to what participants are actually saying and doing. This might sound obvious, but it can be difficult in practice, given the point that we researchers are human, too.

In communicating about your research, you should make clear what you are basing your results on. Make sure you count how many of the participants said or did that interesting thing that fits perfectly with your idea for a new design. Was it all of them, most of them, only a handful, or maybe just one?

A woman looking in a handheld mirror.

© The Italian voice, CC BY 2.0.

Quoting participants is an excellent way to communicate your research to others. Often, participants express something better themselves than you ever could, and showing a direct quote from a participant has a much stronger effect than reporting that he or she said something (i.e., paraphrasing). If you use quotes, make sure that they truly represent what the participant said, and use quotes together with information about how many participants expressed something similar. Never let quotes stand on their own.

4. Obtain Consent and Permission

Make sure that you get each of your participants’ informed consent for participating in your research either verbally or in writing. Informed consent requires that your participants have a clear idea of what you are doing and what you will use the research for. If you want to record anything, be it voice, video, or some other type of data, you have to get a participant’s permission to do so before you start. Different countries may have different rules and regulations in this area, so you should look into what applies wherever you are located or, in the event you need to travel, the environment in question.

5. Do No Harm

It’s obvious that you should never do anything that might be harmful to your research participants. Even so, there’s a difference between that harm and the hidden, indirect harm that can rear its ugly head farther down the road. You can unintentionally cause harm if you don’t carefully consider how you interact with your participants and how you handle their data. It’s important that the risks for your participants don’t outweigh any benefits they can get from your results. Obviously, you must never pressure participants into doing or saying something they don’t want to or revealing information that might be harmful to them later. After all, you are a user researcher, not a psychologist or a detective. If participants reveal sensitive information that can’t be completely anonymized, you should be very careful about whom you share it with. An example from real life is a UX designer who did a number of interviews and observations at a technical workplace where participants had to follow specific safety procedures. Even though he felt that he knew the safety procedures, he made sure he showed photos and other material to his participants before he shared his results with anyone else. He didn’t want to risk getting anyone who had helped him out fired for not following the proper procedures by somehow misrepresenting how they did their work.

Two people in a serious conversation at a cafe.

© Edmond Dantès, CC0

6. Make Sure Participants’ Data is Safe

No matter what form of data you record, you must ensure that your participants’ personal data is safe. If you have promised your users anonymity, make sure that you live up to that promise both in how you keep the data and how you present your results. If you want to use quotes or tell your participants’ stories in a more personal way, you can use a pseudonym rather than the participant’s real name. If you want to share pictures of your participants, from your participants’ homes or similar types of images, make sure that you have their permission to do so, and don’t share it with anyone whom you have not been permitted to share it with. Even if you consider the information harmless, you should respect the agreement you made with your participant. Once your research is finished, consider how much raw data you need to keep. There is no need to keep sensitive information that is no longer relevant for your project. A good rule of thumb is picturing how confident you would feel if you were to find someone had stolen this data from your possession one day—the ‘what ifs’ might worry you; so, stay safe and dispose of data carefully.

© Blue Coat Photos, CC BY-SA 2.0.

7.Don’t Waste Your Participants’ Time

Make sure that you plan your research so that you don’t waste your participants’ time. It’s better that you have to wait for your next participant to arrive than for your next participant to have to wait for you to be ready. Even if you are working on a project that will benefit them in the future, in this situation they are helping you, not the other way around. Think about how long each session lasts and whether you are making unreasonable demands of your participants’ time or endurance. How long the individual research sessions can last will depend on the content of your research session, who your participants are, what their schedules are like, and whether you are paying them.

The Take Away

For the sake of respecting moral conventions and keeping your reputation intact, make sure you always consider the ethics of your user research project. We can sum up the most important considerations like so:

  • Be honest with your participants about who you are and what your project is about.

  • Be sensitive to your participants’ feelings and to cultural norms.

  • Represent your participants accurately, and be open to what they are saying and doing.

  • Get your participants’ informed consent to be a part of your research, and get their permission to record and share data.

  • Never pressure participants, and be careful about whom you share sensitive information with.

  • Keep participants’ data safe.

  • Don’t waste your participants’ time.

Remember, your research participants are invaluable fountains of facts. Be gracious and open with them; you’ll stand a better chance of establishing a higher value for your project and how it will benefit your users and, by association, your organization and yourself.

References & Where to Learn More

Kathy Baxter, Catherine Courage & Kelly Caine (2005) Understanding Your Users, Second Edition: A Practical Guide to User Research Methods. Morgan Kaufmann.

You can read about how design consultancy IDEO handles research ethics in their Little Book of Design Research Ethics, 2015: https://www.ideo.com/journal/the-little-book-of-design-research-ethics

Read more about research ethics and weighing risks vs. benefits when planning user research here.

You can find an article about how to use quotes in user research here.

Read more about Facebook’s experiment here.

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: NY - http://nyphotographic.com/. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-SA 3.0


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