Some important considerations before starting a research project

We all get excited when embarking on a new research project, but it is important to pause and reflect before you begin; building a strong rationale for research can lead to better outcomes for both practitioners and stakeholders.

I have been leading user research projects for more than twenty years. During that time, I’ve worked with a wide range of participants, from the homeless in some of London’s most confronting hostels, to FX traders in the financial district of Paris, to mud crab fishermen in the swamps of Australia’s Northern Territory. The one common denominator in all of these projects has been the need to foreground the comfort and safety of the research subjects and to respect their privacy.

In the unequal power balance between participant and researcher, the participant must always feel that they have control over the information they are sharing; the importance of ensuring informed consent is well known. However, the very first question the researcher needs to ask, even before they get to informed consent, even before they start on their research plan, should be to interrogate whether their research is absolutely necessary.

Is your research absolutely necessary? Can the information you need be obtained in some other way? What justification do you have for carrying out this research?

This does not have to be a scary exercise. This is not an existential question that will affect the immediate future of the research team. This is the first step in creating a framework that will lead to doing the right amount of research, with the right people, and focusing on the right target area.

While such a exercise may not seem relevant in run-of-the-mill UX research, such as prototype testing, it allows the practitioner to pause, take a breath, and consider the ethical implications that their research might have. In taking a look at the recent, grim, history of this area, Alaina Talboy and Lexi Neigel have repeatedly stressed the need to put ethics at the core of UX research. In the world of corporate (and even government) UX, ethics have been seen as a ‘nice to have’, as an academic concern, and this is simply not good enough.

…user research must undergo an ethical overhaul and refresh. There is much to be done. Ethics can no longer be viewed as a ‘nice-to-have’ or a side hustle.

Neigel, L., and Talboy, A., It’s beyond time to put ethics at the core of UX research.

The fact is that any type of face-to-face research, any interaction with the public, carries a certain amount of risk. Let’s say that you’re testing the usability of a used car sales website; you’ve identified suitable participants through a screening process and you’re ready to go.

The sessions proceed smoothly till Ms. B appears. Ms. B has met all the screening criteria, having recently sold a car online; but what the screening hasn’t picked up, is that she has sold the car because she has recently become a widow and is desperate for funds to support her family.

As the test session proceeds, Ms B becomes more and more upset, recalling the traumatic events leading to the sale of the car. At this point, an experienced research practitioner will intervene, gently terminate the session and offer support from the materials they already have on hand, as detailed in their research plan. They will also ensure that Ms. B gets the full incentive payment, where relevant.

Such a scenario (drawn from personal experience) illustrates the need to take great care with even what may seem hum-drum research. Unfortunately, following the pandemic, the risks have become higher, as more and more people struggle with mental health issues; most researchers should be very aware that they are simply not equipped to deal with such trauma. That should be left to those with specialist training.

Unless research has merit, and the researchers who carry it out have integrity, the involvement of human participants is not ethically justifiable.

RMIT, Human Research Ethics

By questioning the need for the research, and in justifying the research approach, practitioners will not only underline the necessity to make the comfort and safety of participants paramount, but will also identify other factors, that will in turn, help to guarantee much more successful outcomes for the research.

In questioning the need for the research, it is important to take a step back, study the landscape, and query whether the target area has been covered before.

Have other parts of your organization carried out similar research in the past? What can you learn from other existing research? At the very least, insights from previous research can inform your research plan and help identify what you need to focus on. Insights from previous studies may help to guide your choice of research methodologies; perhaps a more participatory approach may be more suitable than straight interviews for specific audience groups.

There may be a chance ( and this is especially true when working in government) that other research teams are working on similar issues or related areas. What can your learn from your peers? Can you collaborate to work more efficiently and achieve a better outcome? Before diving feet-first into your own field-studies, assemble all the relevant documentation and learn as much as you can.

How can we avoid “research waste” before our research ever begins? Before starting a research project, make sure you’re providing new additional value and that the research hasn’t been done before. This is most easily done by reaching out to other team members and departments.

Palmer, T., How to maximise the user research you’re already doing.

There are, of course, all the real-world practicalities to consider, the common problems of team pressures, fast-paced environments, constrained time frames and miserly budgets. However, even with these constraints, it is still essential to pause, consider the ethics of what you are proposing, and put together a justification for your research approach; this will help define the scope and parameters of your research and enable you to move more confidently forward.

And there may be some cases where it may be impossible to justify your research proposal. Cases in which the vulnerability of the proposed participants mean that the risks are simply too high. Cases in which the proposed participants (such as Indigenous communities) would be much better served by a community-led approach.

However, for most UX and Service Design projects, questioning the need for research and developing a solid, ethics-based rationale, will lead to better outcomes for participants, practitioners, and project stakeholders.

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