Getting users' consent for research
Whenever you do user research, you must ask participants for their ‘informed consent’. This means getting a record from them which says they understand your research and agree to take part.
You need to get consent from all participants, not just members of the public.
It’s a legal requirement to get a participant’s consent if you want to collect, use or store any personal data they share with you.
You will often collect personal data when carrying out research, even if you don’t plan to. For example, participants might give you their contact details, enter personal data into a prototype or reveal information about themselves on a recording etc.
This is why it’s important to always get consent from everyone you do research with. You must also let them know whether you plan to share their data in a way that allows them to be personally identified.
Learn more about personal data and how it’s defined from your organisation’s data protection officer or on the Information Commissioner’s Office website.
Informing the user
For consent to be informed, participants need to understand what your research involves.
Before starting a research session, you must tell participants:
- your name, role and where you work
- why you’re doing the research
- what you’re going to ask them to do
- what you’ll do with any information they share with you
- whether the session is being observed (and who’s watching)
- whether the session is being recorded (and how you’ll store any audio or video)
You should also remind participants that they’re taking part voluntarily and can stop or withdraw their consent at any time.
Learn more about informed consent for data collection in the Market Research Society code of conduct.
Keeping evidence of consent
After you explain what you’re doing, you must ask participants to give you their written or verbal consent.
The simplest way to do this is to have them sign a consent form which confirms that they understand what they’re agreeing to.
Write in plain English and don’t use legal or technical terms that are hard to understand, otherwise it’s not informed consent.
If you’re filming or recording the session, you can also ask for their verbal consent. If you do this, you must:
- read out the consent information
- ask the participant to say their full name
- ask the participant if they agree to take part in your research
No matter how you get it, always keep evidence of a participant’s consent.
Working without consent
You must not collect, use or store a participant’s research data if:
- they withdraw consent they’ve previously given you
- you’re not sure if you have their consent (eg they seem confused about what they agreed or you’ve lost their consent form)
If you don’t have consent, you must dispose of paper notes in confidential waste and delete relevant details from recordings and electronic files.
You can ask a participant to re-confirm their consent at the end of a session if, for example, you think they are:
- uncomfortable about any information you collected
- confused about how you’ll use the information
Getting consent from people with disabilities
If you’re running a session with someone who has a disability, make sure they can use and understand the consent form. This is important to make sure you get their informed consent.
If someone has a visual or cognitive impairment, you can offer to read the form aloud and ask if they need help signing it. You can also check before the session whether they need a digital version so they can read it using assistive technology.
Getting consent for children or vulnerable adults
If you want to carry out research with children or vulnerable adults (ie people who are unable to take care of themselves or are at risk of harm or exploitation), you need to get consent from a parent, guardian, carer or other responsible adult.
If you have any concerns about this, find out what’s best practice in your department or organisation.
You may also find these guides useful: