What is informed consent?
As a user researcher, you have an ethical duty to ensure that your user research does not harm the people that take part. “Informed consent” is the process of helping research participants make an educated decision about whether they want to take part in your research.
Why do I need to get informed consent?
Your first reaction might be, “How can a usability test harm anyone?”
It’s true that a usability test is unlikely to cause someone physical harm (although once I had a participant who tried to lift an 80 kg large format printer on his own, despite warnings on the outside packaging). But a usability test can cause psychological distress to your participant. For example, how might your participant feel if:
- A researcher shows a video of her at a conference where she curses about a product?
- She hears people in the observation room laughing as she tries to find the correct option on a web page?
- She gets frustrated and ends up in tears because the interface is so hard to use?
And by the way, these aren’t made up scenarios: I’ve seen all three of these situations in real life.
You face similar ethical problems when you carry out field research. The participant has a right to know how you will use the notes, photographs and videos that you take. Who will see this information? Will participants’ comments be anonymous? How will you ensure anonymity if your video shows the participant’s face?
As well as an ethical requirement, you also have legal obligations. Article 8 of The Human Rights Act protects the right to a private and family life. This includes respect for private and confidential information, respect for privacy and the right to control information about one’s private life. Additionally, the European Data Protection Directive (in Europe) and the Data Protection Act (in the UK) also have specific requirements around the use of personal data (which includes sound and video recordings). Other regulations may apply if you’re doing research with children and vulnerable adults.
Common problems with the way user researchers get consent
I commonly see three problems with the way user researchers get informed consent:
- Failing to explain consent properly.
- Mixing up the consent form with a non-disclosure agreement.
- Mixing up the consent form with the incentive.
Failing to explain consent properly
I’ve seen some studies where the researcher asks the user to read the consent form and then sign it. This is a poor way to get consent. This is because participants want to show willing, and they may sign the form on trust (in the same way that most people agree to software terms and conditions without actually reading them). Instead, before the participant signs the form, highlight the key concepts. For example, you could say, “Before you sign the form, I just want to point out some things on it…”. Then highlight issues such as confidentiality and freedom to withdraw.
I once saw an excellent consent form where participants had to tick each clause to confirm they had read it. For example, “I confirm that I understand the purpose of the study”; “I understand my participation is voluntary”; “I agree to my screen being recorded”; “I agree to my session being video-recorded”. I liked the idea so much, I stole it. I like this approach because it ensures participants actually read the form. It has the added benefit that it puts the participant in control of the consent. For example, the participant may consent to audio recording but not to video recording.
Mixing up the consent form with a non-disclosure agreement
Sometimes researchers ask participants to use products that are not released. Clients want to protect their intellectual property so they get participants to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). But you don’t want to mix up an NDA with the process of getting consent. Treat the NDA as a separate form for the participant to sign.
Mixing up the consent form with the incentive
Participants are eligible for the incentive once they have arrived at the test facility. So give them the money, gift voucher or other incentive on arrival. If they then decide to withdraw from the study, that’s life. (I’ve never had a participant withdraw after receiving their incentive. Folks are generally honest). So don’t include anything about the incentive on your consent form. They are (or should be) unrelated.
To sign or not to sign?
It’s understandable that researchers want a signed consent form. They believe this will protect them from a study participant claiming he did not give consent. In practice, consent forms are rarely drafted by solicitors. So unless a court has tested your consent form, this protection may be illusory.
But I want to discourage you from thinking about informed consent as a legal transaction. Informed consent is not about protecting you; it’s about protecting the participant. If you see informed consent as protecting you from, say, being sued, your attitude is wrong. The correct attitude is to ensure your participant understands what consent means.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask participants to sign anything. It’s just that this may not always be the right approach in all situations. For example, asking people to read and sign a form may be a problem if your participant has dyslexia. Or if he has a learning disability (a real issue for organisations, like government, who are designing for everyone).
At the very least, asking the participant to sign on the dotted line may affect the mood music. One minute you’re the good guy, building rapport. Next minute, you’re the bad guy with the legal-looking form.
Depending on the situation, it may be more appropriate to get verbal consent. You can still make a record of this once you turn on the voice or video recorder. For example, start the recording, then say: “For the purposes of the recording, I just want to check that you understood the conversation we had about the purposes of the research and that you give your consent for me to record our conversation.” After the participant agrees, you could follow up with, “And just to re-iterate, you can refuse to participant at any time; you can take a break at any time; you can ask questions at any time; and anything you tell me will be kept confidential.”
If you'd like an example of a consent form, you'll find one in our Usability Test Plan Toolkit. Our consent form is written to have a reading age of 12-13 so it should be suitable for most situations.
Isn’t this just bureaucracy gone mad?
Why bother with informed consent? After all, it’s not going to improve the quality of the user research, is it?
In fact, I’d argue that it will improve the quality of your user research, for at least two reasons.
First, if your participants see that you are taking their concerns seriously, they are more likely to relax. Rather than worry that the video will appear on Youtube, they know that only the design team will see it. A relaxed participant means you are more likely to observe realistic behaviour. Observing realistic behaviour is the goal of all user researchers.
Second, gaining informed consent encourages user researchers to be more empathic. User researchers that empathise with their participants’ concerns are more likely to be sensitive to participants’ concerns about the product. Imagine two alternative research studies: one where the researcher gained informed consent and one where she didn’t. I would expect the one where the researcher gained informed consent to offer more insights. This is because the user researcher is probably more experienced and empathic.
It’s true that you could just shove a consent form under your participant’s nose and tell them to sign it. But try treating the process of gaining consent as an important step. You’ll find you end up with more reliable data in the long run.
About the author
Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, you'll love his online user experience training course.
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