Getting informed consent for user research

You must have informed consent from participants before you start any research activity with them. And you 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:

  • members of our project team who are joining in our research activities
  • senior leaders in our client organisation who we are interviewing about project goals and outcomes
  • subject matter experts in our client organisation who we are interviewing about policies, rules or procedures, or are reviewing something we are making

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 you 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 you do, create a specific information and consent sheet that describes the research and gives the participant the information they need.

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

  • doing the research for the same purpose
  • doing the same things during the sessions
  • collecting the same research data
  • working with the same third-party organisations and suppliers

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

If you are following our client’s consent practices, they will provide the template to use. Make sure the materials you produce 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.

If you are doing face to face research, you may want to 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.

Some clients and stakeholders will want to review your 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, share the consent materials and processes you plan to use, as soon as possible, with the client and with other organisations whose staff or members you are researching with.

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

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 you send them details of their specific session.

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

You will 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 you will not meet the participant face to face, you can:

  • ask the participant to reply by email confirming their informed consent
  • send a paper consent form in the post for the participant to sign and return

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

  • give the participant a printed copy of the consent form to sign
  • share a consent form in an accessible digital format the participant can read and respond to using their assistive technology
  • read the consent form aloud and collect their consent on an audio or video recording

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

During the session #

At the start of the session:

  • remind the participant that their participation is voluntary and they can stop or take a break at any time
  • remind them about the different ways you are recording the session, and about anyone observing or listening in
  • ask them to confirm their consent for the recording

As the session continues, actively make sure you have the participant’s consent. For example, check in with the participant if they look concerned about an activity, or if you’re on a visit and want to take a photo in a new area.

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

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

For paper consent forms, scan or photograph the signed consent form and keep the image file. Avoid using your own phone or other personal device for this.

Make sure the research data and associated consent records have the same participant identifier. Do not include participant names or other personal identifiers in the document names.

Last updated: 9 May 2023 (history)