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Getting informed consent for user research

We must have informed consent from participants before we start any research activity with them. And we must then act only within the consent the participant has given.

This guidance explains how we collect and keep evidence of informed consent at dxw. It builds on the general guidance on getting informed consent in the GOV.UK Service Manual.

Note that this guidance applies to all dxw staff, dxw friends, and partner and client staff doing research activities, like interviews, visits, surveys and tests. Including researchers, designers, analysts, strategists, technologists and product people.

Our research activities often involve members of the public, staff from private and public organisations, senior stakeholders in the client organisation, and colleagues in our immediate team. And it can be difficult to know who exactly counts as a participant and needs to give their informed consent.

Members of the public and people working in non-government organisations always count as participants. We always need to have their informed consent.

People working in government organisations count as participants if they are potential users or operators of the service we are working on, and we are doing research to understand their current working practices and needs, and how those might change. We always need to have their informed consent.

We usually don’t treat people as participants if they are:

If it’s not clear whether you or your team should consider someone as a participant and ask for consent, speak to a Principal Researcher or the Head of User Research.

On different projects we might use dxw, client or partner branded consent materials and processes.

There are four basic options:

  1. Use dxw consent materials and processes.

    In this case, we use our own templates to create dxw branded consent materials.

    And we manage the research data, and keep the associated records of consent.

  2. Use our client’s consent materials and processes.

    If the client organisation has established research practices, then we may use the client’s templates to create consent materials.

    And follow their processes to manage all the research data we collect and keep the associated records of consent.

  3. Use a partner organisation’s consent materials and processes.

    If we are working with a partner organisation that has established research practices, and their staff are responsible for the research activities on a project, then we may use the partner’s templates to create consent materials.

    And follow the partner’s processes to manage all the research data we collect and keep the associated records of consent.

  4. When we are working with a client to build their research capability, we can also help them to create their own consent materials and processes to use in future research activities.

Whichever approach you take, make sure your consent materials and processes follow the good practice for informed consent described in the Service Manual.

For each research activity we do, we create a specific information and consent sheet that describes the research and gives the participant the information they need.

We can use the same information sheet for several rounds or batches of research, as long as we are:

We have template information and consent sheets that will work for most research activities.

If we are following our client’s consent practices, they will provide the template to use. But we always make sure the materials clearly describe dxw’s involvement in the research, and how we will share research data and findings.

If the available templates do not cover the research activities you are doing, speak to the Head of User Research. For example, if you are observing a sensitive activity and have agreed a specific approach to protecting participant privacy.

When we are doing face to face research, we sometimes use a printed consent form.

We have template consent forms that will work for most research activities.

We also have template consent materials for fully confidential research activities.

In fully confidential research, our client does not learn the identity of our participants, has no access to research notes, recordings or other data, and is not involved in analysis. They receive only fully anonymised findings.

We make sure our consent materials are inclusive and accessible, so they don’t create a barrier to participation.

We use accessible formats, like text emails, HTML and Tagged PDF. And we create alternative materials, like easy read, when needed.

We use inclusive language. And we make it clear that we encourage participants with a range of needs to take part in research sessions, adapting our activities where needed.

We offer support for participants to understand and respond to the information and consent materials. We include our contact information, and explicitly tell participants they can contact us with questions or for more information.

Some clients and stakeholders will want to review our consent materials, and some may not be familiar with the ethical and legal reasons for getting informed consent.

To avoid any delay in starting research, we share the consent materials and processes we plan to use, as soon as possible, with the client and with other organisations whose staff or members we are researching with.

We give each participant an information and consent sheet that provides them with the information they need to give informed consent.

We provide the information and consent sheet when the potential participants are invited to take part in your research. And again when each participant is booked in, and we are sending them details of their specific session.

We check which format and channel works best for them - email attachment, paper letter, easy read, verbally, etc.

We need to collect a record of their informed consent from each participant, and keep it along with their research data.

For user research sessions where we will not meet the participant face to face, we can:

For user research sessions where we meet the participant in person, we can also:

Whichever approach we are taking, we make sure the participants have time to read the research and consent information carefully. And we give them an explicit opportunity to ask questions.

During the session #

At the start of the session we:

As the session continues, we actively make sure we have the participant’s consent. For example, by checking with the participant if they are concerned about an activity, or if asking for permission when we’re on a visit and want to take a photo in a new area.

As a researcher, we can also pause to take a break, or finish a session if we are uncomfortable.

For email and similar responses, we keep a copy of the research information and consent sheet we used, along with a copy of each participant’s reply, in the folder with the research data we collect.

For paper consent forms, we scan or photograph the signed consent form, and dispose of the paper (shredding if possible, or tearing up if not). We avoid using our own phone or other personal device for this.

We make sure the research data we collect and the associated consent records have the same participant identifier. And we do not include participant names or other personally identifiable information in the document names.

Last updated: 23 January 2024 (history)