Ensuring informed consent in user research

To design better services, we need to understand our users. At DTA, user researchers work with members of the public to better understand user needs. Ensuring we have informed consent is an important part of how we make sure that the research we do poses no risk to those who are helping us.

User research being conducted at the DTA office.
Caption: User research being conducted at the DTA.

We need informed consent from each person we speak with, so we start by explaining what’s involved. We need to be certain they understand the kind of tasks they’ll be asked to complete and how we’ll use their information.

When testing a prototype, sessions are usually one on one. But if the participant agrees, members of our policy and delivery teams can observe the session, either onsite through a two-way mirror or via webcasting. With permission, we also record the session so the interview can be reviewed later during analysis. Allowing our team to observe helps build empathy with end users and an understanding of their needs. We remind participants that they can withdraw or stop at any time, and don’t have to answer any questions they are not comfortable with. We also ask that they sign a consent form.

A clear, readable consent form is an important aspect of research compliance. After the participant has signed the form, we take a photograph and then hand it back. This way each participant keeps a record of what they’ve agreed to and can revoke consent if they wish. We ask people to choose how they would like information from the session to be shared. It could be that they only want to share information with the researcher and their immediate team, but often people want their feedback to reach decision makers and opt to share with the wider DTA and other government agencies working to improve services. Our aim is to respect their wishes and protect their privacy, while still allowing stories to be told and shared.

A signed consent form records our agreement about what’s going to happen, but the form alone doesn’t give the researcher consent. Genuine consent can’t be captured by a checkbox or skimmed over in the race to the ‘real research’. It relies on an ongoing bond of trust between the researcher and the participant.

During the session, the researcher continuously evaluates the participant’s consent by observing body language, tone of voice and responses to our questions. Is the person enthusiastic? Do they seem engaged? Are they comfortable responding? Do we sense anxiety or boredom? Do they seem confused? The structured questions we ask run parallel to our unvoiced, but critical sense of how things are going. We draw people out on topics they want to discuss and move away from areas they don’t seem comfortable with. When everything is going as it should, consent becomes part of the background of a shared understanding. But if we sense there’s been some misunderstanding, it moves to the foreground and is renegotiated. With the session complete, participants leave in the knowledge that we’ll only use their information as they’ve requested. Our thank you slip includes an email address where they can direct any questions or ask their information and session recordings be deleted if they choose.

Informed consent is a fundamental aspect of how we make sure that what we do poses no risk to those helping us. The findings from user research contribute to products and services that everyone can use for the better, and this is thanks to our research participants. User research is not about doing research on participants, but doing it with them.