Astriata logo mark in orange

Why You Need a UX Partner with Strong Research Ethics

May 19, 2022

Usability testing and UX design are growing in popularity—and that is a good thing.

Before you sign on with a UX partner, however, you will need to do your due diligence to make sure you get the quality experience your organization deserves. Especially when it comes to research ethics and methods, plenty of agencies fall short, with some lacking any sort of formal research training at all.

Agencies or individuals within agencies can “cut corners or follow shoddy research practices, which can harm participants, causing unnecessary distress and suspicion during research sessions,” explains Maria Rosala, a user experience specialist with Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g). “In some cases, participants are willfully or unintentionally deceived about the research purposes or how their data will be used.”

If you’re one of many organizations interested in reaping the significant benefits of UX design, then you’ll want to make sure your UX partner is steeped in the nuances and subtleties of research ethics. After all, usability testing involves human subjects, and stories abound about the mistreatment of human participants in research studies, from the so-called experiments undertaken by Nazi doctors in concentration camps to the intentionally untreated cases of syphilis at the Tuskegee Institute. These are extreme examples, but they’re cemented in our minds—and not something with which any of us want our work associated.

How can you choose a highly ethical and experienced user research and design partner? Here, we share five things to look for as you weigh options and vet potential partners.

1. They understand the meaning and scope of research ethics.

Put simply, the term “research ethics” refers to a set of principles used to guide research design and practices throughout the entire scope of a research project. Since user research involves human subjects, then the principles need to protect the rights, dignity, and well-being of the individuals taking part in our studies or experiments. They need to, as the Hippocratic oath espoused centuries ago, “do no harm.”

When it comes to research ethics, it’s important to realize that ethics apply not only to the actual usability testing experience but also to what happens before (i.e., what they’re told ahead of time) and afterward (i.e., how organizations use the data gathered during testing). Many user researchers overlook this critical aspect, making themselves vulnerable to participants who end up feeling taken advantage of and upset. That’s why you want a partner who understands the full scope and sequence of research ethics—and can offer more than a cursory nod to an ethical approach.

2. They seek informed consent.

Informed consent involves more than obtaining a signature. Done correctly, it involves making sure each participant understands what will happen during testing and how you will use the research afterward. Look for UX teams with standardized consent forms that include space to tailor language to the specifics of each study, Rosala from NN/g advises. Not having standardized forms, she says, is a red flag for a team lacking a systematic approach. Also make sure they provide information sheets with added details about the specifics of the study.

Craig Miller, a professor of human computer interaction at DePaul University, advises including the following information on every consent form:

Although some researchers obtain verbal consents, we recommend and largely use written consents with clear, easy-to-understand language developed for a broad range of participants. Keep in mind, however, that you may need to tailor your language and delivery if you have users with disabilities or differences that make reading difficult, or if English is not the native language. Likewise, in addition to the standard items suggested by Miller above, you will need to obtain consent if you record, photograph, or video any part of the study.

They respect each participant’s time.

This may seem like a minor detail, but it’s actually a big one—and incredibly important to participants. As you look for a UX partner, make sure they come across as cognizant and respectful of each participant’s time. For example, take caution of anyone who recommends or uses time-intensive surveys or testing protocols, and go with teams who invest time upfront to condense surveys and steps—and make the testing experience as streamlined and smooth as possible.

UX testing experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) advise choosing a partner who prepares as much as they can in advance, and “doesn’t make the user jump through hoops that [they] actually aren’t testing.” As examples, the MIT team says to avoid having users do things like install software or upload test files, “unless your test is supposed to measure the usability of the installation process or file-loading process.” Most importantly, they say, don’t waste users’ time.

They grasp the participant’s point of view.

Look for a UX partner who possesses and exhibits degrees of empathy—that is, the ability to see the testing experience through the eyes of the user. After all, test anxiety doesn’t only happen in high school. The idea of a test of any sort can provoke feelings of apprehension in many of us, so your partner should do everything they can to put participants at ease.

“A user may regard the test as a psychology test, or more to the point, an IQ test,” explain the UX experts at MIT. “They may be worried about getting a bad score, [and] their self-esteem may suffer, particularly if they blame problems they have on themselves, rather than on the interface.” In scenarios like this, the last thing you want is to get defensive about the interface you’ve developed. That kind of a reaction will fuel anxiety in participants, making them unlikely to participate or use your interface ever again.

Remember: a key part of testing involves listening to participants in an open, calm way. Defensive reactions also shut people down, which defies the point of testing in the first place. That’s why you need a partner who can create a calm, easy-going environment that makes participants feel good about their decision to take part in your study.

They know about the Belmont Report.

In lieu of a concrete set of ethical guidelines to steer your UX testing and research, we recommend finding a partner who is familiar with the related guidelines that do exist. The Belmont Report, for instance, is one we know well—and have used over the years to inform our approach. Published in 1976 by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, the report covers everything from the meaning of ethical principles like respect, beneficence, and justice to the application of principles in research settings through measures like obtaining consent, selecting subjects, and weighing risks and benefits.

Regarding justice, for instance, the report highlights the injustice that too commonly results from using vulnerable subjects as research participants. “Certain groups, such as racial minorities, the economically disadvantaged, the very sick, and the institutionalized may continually be sought as research subjects, owing to their ready availability,” the Belmont Report reads. “Given their dependent status and their frequently compromised capacity for free consent, they should be protected against the danger of being involved in research solely for administrative convenience, or because they are easy to manipulate as a result of their illness or socioeconomic condition.”

Although usability testing, generally speaking, involves few dangers, awareness of these matters is critical to creating a comfortable, safe experience for users. One safety issue that does crop up, for instance, given the high amount of usability testing that takes place online in a remote environment, is that participants sometimes take part in studies while driving. If that happens, you want a partner who can see at once that this is an endangerment to the participant and reschedule the test for later time, instead of pushing through for the sake of convenience.

Testing human subjects involves making split-second decisions, and you want your partner to possess the knowledge and experience needed to guide your study—and your UX web design—in the right direction. Don’t forget: your reputation is on the line, and you don’t want to risk it.

If you’re in search of a UX partner who understands the intricacies and ethics of UX design and research, or you simply wonder what the UX hype is all about, our team at Astriata is happy to talk with you. Reach out so we can find a time.

We're here for you.