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.