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5 Keys to Ethical Design Research

September 9, 2019

Perhaps because of a lifetime of avid consumption of action thrillers, comic books, and video games, I conceive of design work on most—though by no means all—projects as a mission or quest: We assemble a squad of people with different skills. We take actions in pursuit of our mission objectives. Finally, we compile after-action reports. Hopefully, at the end of a project, we celebrate our protagonists’ victory against the odds and all obstacles.

But, from many a narrative arc, I’ve also learned this: Before the mission begins, our heroes need the intelligence that would put them in a position that would give them their best shot at winning. They need to know the lay of the land and the challenges they must overcome.

For product and service designers, design research is the source of this kind of intelligence. Because, as UX professionals, we aim to be data informed rather than data driven, a large part of design research involves speaking with people—whether stakeholders from the C-suite or the person on the street. Our cherished users are the source of our knowledge about what happens when the digital rubber hits the digital road.

While much has been and will be written about the techniques and activities we can use to gain actionable insights from the folks we speak with, we need to start thinking more about our ethical treatment of the people who participate in our studies, workshops, interviews, and beta-testing programs.

In this article, I’ll discuss five guidelines for ensuring that we treat our participants and interviewees the way we’d like to be treated. After all, according to many belief systems and philosophies, that’s the most important governing principle for our interactions with our fellow travelers on this planet. All the rest is commentary.

1. First, do no harm.

This first principle is the primary tenet of the Hippocratic Oath. It’s just as applicable to participants in design research as it is to treating illness. In medical practice, doctors usually interpret this tenet to mean that, no matter what, a physician must not leave a patient worse off than before treatment. This might seem obvious, but as I often tell participants in studies, sometimes it’s necessary to state the obvious just to make sure that it is, in fact, obvious.

In design research, you can apply this precept in a number of ways:

  • Don’t laugh or appear amused when the participant is struggling. Even a bemused chuckle that’s intended to be sympathetic has the potential to cause harm.
  • Don’t speak to any participant or interviewee in a manner that could even remotely seem condescending, regardless of that person’s rank, skill level, or attitude toward you.
  • Don’t make participants feel as though the problem is with them rather than the system you’re studying.
  • Make sure that participants and interviewees know that people won’t be able to trace their critical comments directly back to them.

2. Respect everyone’s time.

Time is the one resource that none of us can ever get back once we spend it—discounting the kinds of epically amazing devices that heroes wield in blockbuster movies.

In the real world, we must all be aware of the fact that every second is priceless and irretrievable. You can apply this understanding in empathizing with UX-research participants, in the following ways:

  • Start on time. On time is the very moment when all parties are in the room or on the call.
  • End on time. However, if you must continue beyond the allotted time, broach the subject with the participant or interviewee as early as possible: “By the clock, we have only about ten minutes left, but there are some crucial pieces of the app we’d like to explore with you. Would it be at all possible to get a little bit more of your time today?”

I realize that the preceding point is perhaps controversial, so I’ll add one more:

  • Mind the clock and the velocity of your session. If necessary, consider dropping noncritical portions of your protocol or questionnaire to ensure you get to the juiciest parts of the system you’re studying.  For example, if you’re heading into your fifth research session and all four of the previous participants were in absolute agreement that a slide-out menu was impossible to see and the options it contained didn’t make sense, adjust your questions accordingly for participant five.

3. Don’t be afraid to apologize.

In my experience, fears that apologizing for every hiccup or delay makes a person seem unprofessional or unprepared are unfounded. Apologizing sincerely shows that you have empathy for the participant or interviewee. How else are you to determine how your clients, apps, and tools can connect with users on an emotional level if you can’t connect with participants during your research sessions?

So, if a prototype takes too long to load, apologize. If there’s a glitch somewhere in the prototype, preventing something from working properly, apologize. If it’s too hot or cold in the room where your research is taking place and you don’t have control over the temperature, apologize. Note, however, that these are the kinds of things you should advise folks about in advance.

You’ll occasionally get a participant who expects the white-glove treatment, but most people you’ll work with during design research know that stuff happens and will respond to a sincere apology with grace and patience.

4. Aim to be sympathetic with participants, but don’t join them in expressing derogatory remarks.

Statements that cross the line could be comments about your clients, your client’s competitors, other individuals or teams in the client’s or participant’s company, or people of other races, nationalities, religions, creeds, genders, or sexual orientations.

Sadly, I’ve listened to people launch into rants about all of these during my time as a design researcher. The challenge in such situations is to remain connected and professional while also distancing yourself from the sentiments the participant is expressing. It is possible, but it’s not easy.

That said, you have the right to emotional and physical safety during your research sessions. You can—and should—end a session with any participant at any time if the participant is making you feel uncomfortable through their actions or statements.

5. Be grateful.

Having been on the other side of the table during a design-research session, I know that being a research participant can be a daunting experience. People want very much to appear competent in the eyes of the researchers. They want their answers to please the researchers. They want to come across as truly helpful. But they might be distracted the entire time by thoughts of that sweet honorarium they’ll receive at the end of the session.

Consequently, it’s important to express your thankfulness to your participants for their navigating and negotiating the tangle of emotions, tasks, awkwardly worded questions, uncooperative prototypes, and dropped Internet connections that make up a design-research session.

You must also thank your participants profusely for their time—see Rule 2—and for their feedback. Their reactions to the prototypes, thought exercises, and surveys are the foundation upon which the entire design effort rests.

And, on a personal level, I’ve yet to meet a designer or client observer who didn’t learn something from a design-research interview. I always walk away with something that informs my design-research methods. When I’ve had the opportunity to speak with participants who have deep life experience and wisdom, I walk away knowing a little bit more about how the world in general works. I’m grateful for all of that.

Conclusion

Writing these ethical guidelines has made me very much aware of the fact that all ideas are perishable. What is true and works well today might not be true or work as well in the future. Even the Hippocratic Oath has been tweaked and revised a little over time. But you need to start somewhere. To paraphrase both Omar Little and The Hound, a design researcher has got to have a code. 

UX Lead at Praxent

Austin, Texas, USA

Mark Power-FreemanMark has worked as an interface designer, UX and customer-experience designer, and design researcher for nearly two decades. Currently, he is UX Lead at Praxent, a digital innovation agency. He has an academic background in new media and psychology.  Read More

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