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Ethics – Conduct

users in focus groups

How should you behave when engaging with people?

How you conduct yourself as a designer undertaking user research is of paramount important to ensure that your study has an ethical basis. Conduct is essentially a mix of common sense etiquette and legislated behaviour.

The principles described here have been taken from the Market Research Society Code of Conduct (2010) (see Key Sources) which applies to anyone involved in consumer, business-to-business, social, opinion, international or any other type of research project.

Key principles

The design researcher must:

  • Be transparent as to the subject and purpose of data collection.
  • Ensure that personal data collected are relevant and not excessive
  • Ensure that the design and content of the data collection process is appropriate for the audience being researched
  • Ensure that participants are able to provide information in a way that reflects the views they want to express
  • Respect the confidentiality of information collected (see Confidentiality)
  • Respect the rights and wellbeing of individuals.
  • Ensure that participants are not harmed or adversely affected
  • Respect a participant’s right to withdraw from a project at any stage

Audio and video recording

If there is to be any recording, monitoring or observation during an interview, participants must be informed about this at recruitment and at the beginning of the interview, and told how it will be used. Consent to the rights for usage of any footage should also be detailed in the consent form (see Consent) and the participant should be supplied with a duplicate of such material on request.

If participants wish their identity to be obscured by pixellation or other technical means, this should be respected.  A way of overcoming such problems in task-related research is to focus only on the part of the body being used such as the hands, or to film from behind the subject. Video/audio recordings of participants must be kept in a secure place and not released for use by third parties.

Sensitive topics

The potentially intrusive nature of qualitative research means that emotional wellbeing is an area of particular concern. Irrespective of the topic under discussion, researchers must not abandon normal respect for an individual’s values and be alert to any distress their questions may cause.

In terms of sensitivity, topic areas can be divided into:

  • Those that are judged sensitive to everyone, because of the nature of the subject
  • Those topics that may be sensitive to a particular individual, because of that individual’s past history

In the case of the latter, researchers cannot take precautions in advance of the interview, but can treat each case sensitively and individually, giving respondents a genuine opportunity to withdraw.  All topics can be sensitive to someone.

Generally, respondents who feel their privacy and personal sensitivities are not recognised nor respected will be less forthcoming and the nature of their responses will be affected. Equally, respondents who feel they have not been treated with honesty and openness may feel patronised. In both cases, the nature of their response will be affected.

Subject matter and children

Care must be taken if the subject is contentious, disturbing or in any way in advance of what the child/young person may be expected to know or understand. It is imperative to avoid certain subjects when interviewing younger children (eg a topic that might frighten the child), though the same subject might quite safely be covered with an older child/young person.

Special care is needed when interviewing children and young people about:

  • Issues which could upset or worry the child (eg his or her relationships with other children)
  • Those which risk creating tension between the child and its parents
  • Those relating to potentially sensitive family situations (eg parental relationships, income, use of alcohol or drugs within the household, family illness)
  • Those relating to racial, religious and similar socially or politically sensitive matters
  • Those concerned with sexual activities
  • Those relating to illegal or otherwise socially unacceptable activities

If there is a valid or important reason for covering any of these sensitive subjects, it is essential both that a full explanation is given to the responsible adult and their consent obtained; and also that steps are taken to ensure that the child/young person is not worried, confused or misled by the questioning.

The opportunity to opt out of the research at any point must be made clear to the child and to the responsible adult.

Further reading

Alderson, P. & Morrow, V. (2004): Ethics, Social Research and Consulting with Children and Young People. London: Barnardos

Hill, M. (1997): ‘Participatory research with children’. Child and Family Social Work, 2(3), pp. 171-183.

Disabled or older participants

(see also Contact)

  • The researcher should be aware of the tiredness levels of the participants and their need for toilet breaks
  • Where a participant is disabled, they may need to be escorted to the toilet
  • Refreshments should be provided for any session lasting more than two hours.
  • Information may need to be provided in large print or alternative formats

Further reading

Equality Act  2010 Guidance