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User research ethics: 7 principles of an ethical study

User research ethics: 7 principles of an ethical study
UXtweak Team
•  20.01.2022
Participants and their answers, as well as their feedback are an essential part of UX research. However, it's also important to ensure that the personal information and well-being of respondents are safe and guaranteed. In today’s article, we will discuss the importance of ethical research, its benefits, as well as the 7 principles UX ethics to help improve your own studies.

UX research is a dynamic field where specialists with diverse backgrounds can provide amazing findings and results. However, the involvement of various professionals may lead to differences in expectations and methods. Therefore, you don’t need to be a villain to  do something unethical during the research process. Mistakes and biases can arise even by a trained person. However, there are multiple ways of preventing them from happening. And that’s by learning UX ethics.

Training, peer review, and protocols are some of the most effective tools for eliminating such issues. In fact, there are 7 simple principles that can help introduce ethics into your UX research, and we will cover them all in this article. 

What are UX research ethics? 

UX research ethics is about understanding, accepting, and respecting the participants of the research, including their rights and welfare. UX Research ethics is a crucial element that should be considered while conducting any type of study. In other words, ethics are ground zero for UX researchers. 

The democratization of UX research has caused methodology to become debatable, flexible, and subjective. Science, on the other hand, has its own rules, which are controlled by a variety of mechanisms, such as peer reviews or ethical committees.

In UX research, there is no such system of control and therefore, the quality of the research is left in the hands of the researchers themselves. Even though anyone can become a UX researcher, the training and understanding of standardized procedures are inevitable.  

You may now be starting to wonder: Is my research ethical? Have I considered all aspects of ethical research in my practice? 

Answering some of the following questions can help you find the answer:

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If you answered all of the questions positively and confidently, it means that you understand the importance of the topic. Moreover, you may have included some of the research ethics principles in your routine. 

However, if you hesitated with some of the answers, then you may want to continue reading. The next paragraph will explain why it is crucial to consider UX ethics as a fundamental part of the research.

When ethics in UX research goes wrong 

The question of ethics usually arises after shocking revelations from whistleblowers or media. This is why it is imperative that every company works on the principles of ethical research before losing the trust of their clients. Think about it for a moment: What kind of consequences might arise if the study doesn‘t respect UX research ethics? 

Causing traumatic experience to participants

Participants may be affected or intimidated by the questions. Bad feelings may remain long after the research has been conducted, and unpleasant experiences could be associated with your company.

Losing the loyalty and trust of participants, co-workers, and clients

This point inevitably leads to issues in cooperation in the long run.

Creating a useless product or service

Manipulation of the data as the result of ignorance towards UX research ethics can cause misunderstandings and misinterpretation of the results, as well as have a negative effect on your projects.

Damaging your reputation

Not adhering to the research ethics puts your company at risk of becoming one associated with questionable morals.

What are the signs of unethical practices in UX research? 

Sometimes, of course, inaccuracies may cause problems in your study and lead to unethical behavior in the process of research. Such mistakes may occur in all types of methodology. Here are some crucial signs that can help you indicate unethical practices:

Manipulation in recruitment

Researchers shouldn’t have any knowledge of the background of participants, otherwise, they may be inclined to cherry-pick participants who are inclined to behave in an expected way. Therefore, when recruiting participants, go ahead and define their characteristics, but let your colleagues or a recruiting company make the selection of your participants. 

Moreover, don’t forget to write clear instructions about the study and distribute them to participants during the recruitment. 

Lack of respect toward participants

Refusing to accept the disadvantages or personal issues of participants is a serious problem. When recruiting elderly people or individuals with learning difficulties, such as dysgraphia or dyslexia, think about the task you are giving them. Is there a need for more guidance? Before writing the task, try to understand their needs and reflect them in your questions. 

Manipulation of participants 

Asking suggestive questions that support your ideas will only harm your project. Your ego and willingness to prove your point are not scientific methods. Focus instead on the purpose and intentions of the tasks. Are they short, explicit, and well-defined? If you are struggling with the objectivity of the questions, discuss their content with your colleagues. 

Learn more about the art of asking effective questions in the blog: Usability Testing Questions: How to ask correctly

Manipulation of the results

One of the most frequent mistakes when analyzing and interpreting data concerns the relationship between correlation and causation. Correlation does not imply causation, and we can’t stress this enough.

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The 7 principles of ethical practice in UX research

So far, we’ve presented issues and problems of unethical research. Now it’s time to solve them. Some approaches and methods, of course, can be changed immediately while drinking your morning coffee. Other solutions will need time, discussions, and planning. Here are the 7 principles of ethical practice for you to keep in mind while doing your UX research. 

1. Create protocols and standardized methods for ethical research

The protocol is a kind of guidance when conducting the research from the beginning to the end. It is the Holy Bible for the entire team. It doesn’t matter who is conducting the study, they know each and every step of the process. The protocol explains the process step by step – from recruiting new participants to the ways of correctly introducing the tasks, including post-event moderation. All the steps are described in detail. 

Another critical element that should be included in the protocol is informed consent. Before starting the testing phase, make sure to ask for consent from each respondent. Informed consent is proof that individuals are aware of the task as well as its background, and that they consent to their participation. If you intend to ask sensitive questions, remember to mention this beforehand. Informed consent gives you permission to study specific behavior ethically. 

PRO TIP: Use simple language and syntax when asking for informed consent so that it’s comprehensible for the respondents. 

3. Peer Review 

Scientific papers are always peer-reviewed before the official publication. This is a  controlled mechanism for scientific papers to determine the quality of the paper. The role of a peer review is to look at the scientific significance, legitimacy, and potency of the paper. Poor quality research is identified and eliminated. 

Don’t hesitate to ask other UX researchers and their teams to look at your protocols, tasks, or conclusions of your findings. A review process may help identify errors, bugs, and biases. 

4. Training in research ethics

Protocols and guidelines can be understood as theoretical background. Moreover, they contain cheat-sheets on how to solve various issues or questions. Training is an effective way of applying theoretical knowledge to the real world. The main purpose of it is to experience real-life scenarios and situations that may occur. Every new member of the team should be trained in research ethics and understand their principles.

5. Data transparency

UX researchers should be skilled in data analysis. How can you interpret the meaning of the data when you don’t know how to analyze it in a proper and ethical way? Moreover, it is also critical to discuss ways of protecting data. Create your policy about who, where, and under what conditions can someone access the data. Again, include the procedure in the protocol.

6. Stress levels

The environment, wording of the task, and atmosphere can negatively influence the participants‘ answers. When conducting usability testing, look carefully at the design and language you use. Is it a pleasing experience? Does it fulfill your tasks? 

7. Critical thinking and systematic update 

As mentioned previously, UX research is a dynamic and exciting field that is quickly developing. Therefore, the protocols and guidelines may be out of date. Improvement of guidelines and their updating is key. Make sure that you reflect the reality and current trends in the research as well.

Ethical practice in research about respect

Discuss the potential dangers of unethical research with your team. Try to spot any problems that might affect the trust in the company. The topic of ethics in research is not a question of nobility and virtue, it is about the position, name, and reputation of your brand, as well as the well-being of your respondents. 

And in case you are looking for a good UX research tool to conduct your ethical study, UXtweak is always here to help! Create an account and start testing today!

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