What is informed consent?
When we hear the words “informed consent”, we think about it as a noun, the document that is at the start of each research session to get the participant’s signature to go ahead. In this article I’d like to talk about “informed consent” as the verb, the active process of getting consent which is more than the signing of a piece of paper.
It’s important to make this switch in thinking because informed consent the document can feel just just feels like the paperwork we need to get through before we get to do the interesting stuff. Whereas guiding the participant through the active process of being informed so they can give us free consent sets the tone of the session. Done well it can reduce anxiety for both participant and moderator and everyone is comfortable with what’s coming next. Done badly it can increase anxiety for participants and bias their actions and feedback.
What information do participant’s need?
In order to give informed consent, your participant needs to know the high level of all the Ws – the who, what, why, and when – of what’s going on in the session and will happen afterwards to what they share with you. It’s likely to contain:
- who you are and what is your role
- why you doing the research
- what will happen in the session
- what you want to record or capture in the session – and why
- what will happen with information you learn from the participant (especially personal information)
- who is watching or listening in live
- who you will share recordings or clips from recordings with
Each of these elements helps the participant understand what’s being asked of them in the session and why it’s important to the research.
Who you are and what is your role
Introduce yourself and your relationship with the topic of the research session.
Here you want to position yourself as an objective researcher so they can feel able to give honest and open feedback without fear they will offend or upset you.
Reason for the research
This helps the participant understand how their feedback will contribute to your project and will help them feel valuable.
Key sections of the session
Giving a quick overview of the stages of the session, for example, a short interview, some tasks on a website, followed by a feedback form lets participants visualise the session and mentally check they are ok with it. It also reduces any surprises that might make them uncomfortable later in the session.
Who is observing or listening in live
Being watched can make people anxious and alter what they do and how they respond to questions. Now we’re all working remotely, this can be exacerbated by seeing all those observer icons on the video call.
We want to reduce that anxiety and any behavioural effects because our research is about getting insights into what they would do and how they would think and feel if we were not there.
So how we tell them about observers is really important. Introducing them as the designers or developers of the system can lead some people to only give positive feedback because they don’t want to offend. In contrast, I’ve heard participants spend most of the session talking about an unrelated poor experience because they think the bosses of the company are listening.
So your best bet is to remain neutral about who is listening while reassuring the participant that their feedback will go back to the designers anonymously.
“Some of my colleagues are listening in to learn so we can capture and pass back your feedback.”
What you want to record or capture
Be clear up front what you want to record, particularly if you are asking participants to use their own device and share screens with you. Some people are uncomfortable about this, so it’s an opportunity to remind them to switch off notifications and close others windows to minimise risk of inadvertent sharing.
Why you want to record
This might seem like a doozy to researchers, but some people are cautious about being recorded because they don’t want anything to come back to them. Be very clear about your purpose – typically to review and check your notes – and teen talk about sharing.
Who you will share recordings or clips with
When we say “sharing” some people immediately worry that we mean YouTube or TikTok. Be clear about who will see the full recordings and clips from them.
A challenge that comes up time and again is the balance between sharing research clips with your team to get to the nitty gritty of a problem, and sharing more generic clips with the wider organisation as part of our role evangelising user research and what we learn.
You might need to play with your wording, and run it by your data protection team, to find a way of being as open as possible with participants without limiting your options for sharing with more stakeholders in the future.
Asking for their consent
The active process now switches from you informing the participant to asking them to consent to take part.
Make time to read through the informed consent form slowly. This gives them time to respond, showing your respect for their consent and your integrity as a researcher.
Some hints if you want to improve
If you get nervous at the start of sessions, or think you might have areas to improve in getting to informed consent, the first thing to do is review what you are doing now. Listen to your introductions from a few recent sessions. Use your researcher’s ear to listen for areas you might want to improve on.
Reflect on your tone and pace
Lot’s of researchers feel anxious about asking for permission to record or share information and this might come out in your tone and pace sounding rushed, or nervous and apologetic.
Nothing beats practicing to calm your nerves. Try a rough script out your introduction and talking it through a few times to get used to thee words coming out of your mouth. And if anything still causes you concern – for example who you are sharing clips with – make sure you find answer beforehand so you can be authentic and confident in your message when you deliver in the session.
Reflect on the words you use
Listen out for any jargon you use – such as prototype or usability test – and for words that might trigger biased responses – such as telling the boss is listening in. Think about other words and phrases you could use and practice speaking them to get familiar.
Scripting the introduction (or review your existing script)
Finally, although it may sound very formal and constrictive, writing a script is a great way to improve this part of the session. Not only does it help reduce your anxiety, but it also supports your ethical approach, and sets up the session for unbiased feedback and robust evidence.
If you’ve never done it before, try writing out your script long hand – all the words you would use as if it were a script for a film or play – and then revise it to a concise prompt that is readable in the session. Some people prefer short sentences, others bullet lists.
If you’re still unsure about scripting, think of it as an energy saver. Having a script to work from at the start of a session will reduce your cognitive load – it’s just one less thing to have to think about and it gives you a check list that helps you be an awesome researcher.