The problems that creative agencies have to solve are not always easy. Designing a new website or digital product should involve a discovery phase, which includes research with real users. We often need to cover sensitive topics, with vulnerable populations, to understand their challenges and emotional impacts, ensuring we do better next time. In this article, true UX Lead Stephanie Peschel explores how to put ethics at the heart of your next research project.
Research is at the heart of the user-centered design process, providing an essential basis for strategic and design decisions. Discovery research, especially interviews, helps us gain a deep understanding of the design problem, leading to better solutions for end users.
To increase our understanding and build empathy, we need to go beyond digital interactions and explore the broader user experience. We are likely to uncover negative experiences, address personal issues and engage with people who feel excluded because of their age, disability, ethnic, economic or social background. As researchers, we must take steps to ensure that all individuals feel comfortable and appropriately supported to share these experiences.
We don’t always get it right the first time. Here are lessons learned from my experience as a researcher investigating military families, applications for disability benefits and financial support, as well as misdiagnosis and the impact of chronic pain.
1.) Understand the context
Before you start planning research, learn more about the topic. Your research should focus on learning something new or uncovering hypotheses. These assumptions come from somewhere, so it is important to explore them. Talk to organizations and third parties who are already interacting with target users to understand their perspective. This will highlight known common frustrations and challenges. It will provide you with second-hand experiences preparing you for your first-hand conversations. This will help you formulate sensitive questions and anticipate difficult talking points.
2.) Make it accessible
Like our digital products, research must be accessible. Since the coronavirus pandemic, more research has been conducted remotely, by telephone or videoconference, contributing to broader participation. Conducting research where the participant feels most comfortable will put them at ease and reduce the biases introduced by visiting an unfamiliar office or space. Make sure resources such as consent forms, handouts, and tasks are clearly explained and in formats that are accessible to all participants.
For example, if you use online collaborative tools, make sure they are accessible to keyboard and mouse users. People with assistive technologies are often excluded from early testing of prototypes because many tools require click navigation from a mouse.
3.) Explain your role as well as theirs
At the start of any research session, you should state your purpose and how the information will be used. You should make it clear that you are unable to respond to complaints or grievances, and that any information they provide does not affect their rights or their existing relationship with the organization.
Remember that this may be your participant’s first opportunity to talk about their experience. They may have a lot to say and a lot of feelings, which may not be fully addressed. Make it clear that you are not a qualified adviser and cannot give advice.
4.) Read Body Language
Don’t just trust what the person tells you verbally, read their body language. Attendees often want to please us, but if you see someone starting to feel uncomfortable or the subject is difficult, acknowledge it. Confirm that the participant is happy to continue and make sure they feel encouraged to say no.
5.) Provide follow-up
Once the session is over, allow time for reflection. Don’t rush your participant out of the session. Give them another opportunity to ask you questions about your role and your research.
You should prepare signage material on the issues discussed and instructions for support services. Review and agree with the client, they can advise you on appropriate resources and organizations. As you explore the larger context, ask what materials should be included in your follow-up.
Don’t forget: the well-being of the researcher
It is important to remember that research involves two parts. The participant and the searcher. Spending all day listening to difficult experiences can have adverse consequences. Give yourself time between sessions to decompress. It should last an hour, not just 10 minutes. This will allow you to approach the next session fresh, not exhausted. Talk to the wider team about the experiences raised, this will help you share the knowledge gained and enable you to process what you have heard.
Introducing ethical practices is a matter of preparation. At true, we take the time to fully understand the organizations we work with and their users, immersing ourselves in existing knowledge. This ensures that we add value to every customer and provide a safe space for our attendees to spend their valuable time helping us.