Creating an ethical usability study

At its core, ethical research puts the participant first.


Ethical methods and procedures are critical when conducting research of any kind, and usability is no exception.  Processes regarding ethical treatment of study participants’ well-being and privacy have been well documented in a variety of fields including healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and other scientific endeavors.  It is within the past decades that these ideals have been applied and reconfigured to usability research, and the following explores these issues.  

PArticipant well-being

As previously stated, researchers are responsible for the well-bring of the study participants as these studies involve real people.  They require attention and respect within the guidelines, both recommended and regulated, of other research-based studies.  While usability research is still in its early stages and has minimal regulation at this point, the onerous is placed primarily upon the researcher.  


It is important to be honest with you participants as soon as possible.  Being upfront regarding the purpose of the study, who is conducting the study, and how the results will be used is critical to designing an ethical methodology.  This information puts the participant at ease, and more importantly, gives them the ability to decline participation if desired.  The caveat to this applies to studies in which sharing this information may change or bias the results of the study.  In these particular studies, decided on a case by case basis, this information should be shared as soon as possible in order to respect the participant while also promoting the integrity and validity of the results.  


Researchers must be cognizant of the participant’s feelings and address these concerns in a sensitive manner.  Think about how the participant is experiencing the situation.  Make sure they understand there are no incorrect answers in the study, in fact, any issues that arise are design problems, with the issue lying in the hands of the developers and researchers.  In particular studies, sensitive or private information may come up, and in these situations, make sure tests are conducted privately for the safety of the participant and the study results.  Perhaps most importantly, make sure to consider local cultural norms and characteristics when designing studies, including issues of power, status, gender, etc.  If local attributes are not taken into account, participants will no longer feel at ease, ethics not followed, and results may be meaningless.  


Representing the results of your participants is imperative.  As researchers, it is common to have preconceived notions of what we think or want the results to be.  This human characteristic must be suppressed, allowing the researcher to monitor results and not try and lead them.  Be open and listen to what the participant is saying and doing, and record the results accordingly.  When analyzing the results, make sure to express how participant input led you to design recommendations, while not filtering results in order to justify changes the researcher wants or think should occur.  Utilizing quotes can be a particularly useful method in order to abide by these ethical considerations.  

obtain consent

After keeping these ethical considerations in mind when designing a study, it is important to receive consent in writing or verbally in order to protect researchers and participants if future issues arise.  This will solidify that the participant has a clear understanding of what the research is being conducted for, their rights in the process, how and if the study is being recorded, and so on.  Make sure these documents abide by local rules and regulations as different locations and bureaucracies have varied forms of consent.

Critical takeaways

This is a brief overview of attributes associated with ethical usability study.  Whenever designing, conducting, or analyzing a usability study, make sure to keep the golden rule in mind, and treat participants how you would like to be treated.  Furthermore, just because something is legal, does not mean it is ethical, and it is important to expand these ideals past what is currently regulated in this blossoming usability field.