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5 Experts Offer Strategies for Ethical Participant Management

We asked experts for their best advice for moving from "transactional" to "cooperative" participant engagement. 

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Danbee Kim

A truly "ethical" experience research practice doesn't stop at recruitment. Although diversity and access are imperative when sourcing participants, practitioners can't lose focus when the work fields.

People Nerds spoke to a few experts about extending ethics in research to participant management and communication. Follow these suggestions to better imbue respect and equality and create a more collaborative and compassionate research practice.

Julia Mayer (Sr. UX Research Manager) & Austen Lazarus (UX Research Coordinator) — Teachers Pay Teachers

Here's a few things we at Teachers Pay Teachers have done to make our recruitment process more ethical while we know teachers are going through some rough times right now:

✔ Create pre-written templates

Templates for participant outreach are timesavers, but it’s easy to fall into the habit of firing off emails without re-reading what we’re communicating and sending.

Revisit and update your templates frequently. Be mindful and think about who is receiving the email, and acknowledge in the copy anything that may be going on in their world.

For example, a majority of our users work in schools, so when sending a recruitment outreach email, it’s important to stop and think about significant events like regents, grading, holidays, graduation, parent-teacher conferences, prom, and a pandemic that’s affected nearly every school and student learning.

✔ Be human

Yes, templates are great—but being human is also great. So much of what we do is automated, and now more than ever, we should take advantage of any chance we get to have any form of human interaction.

If a user follows up with a question regarding a research study or their upcoming user call, avoid using a template (there usually isn’t one). Respond as you, and show them you’re real and accessible.

✔ Follow up with a thank-you note

Following up with a thank-you note after a user call—even if you’re sending them an incentive through a third-party—is just a nice way to say, well, “thank you.” Let them know how their feedback will impact what you’re working on, and give them the opportunity to follow up if they have questions or if they’d like to participate in future research.

✔ Be understanding about cancellations and no-shows

Cancellations and no-shows are bound to happen. However, our everyday environments may look a lot different than they did pre-COVID, and some things are just completely out of our control.

If a participant cancels or no shows, reach out. If possible, provide the option to reschedule. If they’re not able to reschedule, ask if they’d like to be included in a future study. (Don’t forget about future potential participants-make a note of them wherever you’re managing participants).

✔ Communicate the ask

Depending on who you’re speaking to, most people have not participated in research. Joining a call or starting a diary study may feel intimidating or a bit like they’re being tested. Wherever you can, guide them, set expectations, let them know this is not a test, and clearly outline what will be asked of them.

Max Masure (Ethical UX Researcher)

✔ Actively seek participants in underrepresented communities

You cannot expect people from underrepresented communities to sign upon their own for a call for participants. It has to be intentional work to find their communities and get them to feel safe to participate.

✔ Consider aftercare

When talking with underrepresented communities—especially about their struggles and traumas—we have to plan aftercare with social workers, wrap up with positive conversations, or at least a list of crisis phone lines, because we are opening triggering subjects with them.

✔ Ask, “Will it help or harm vulnerable groups?”

Sometimes we get so into a solution that we walk far away from the impact it will have on folks, especially the most vulnerable ones. It is crucial to regularly ask ourselves if our work is or will harm folks with fewer resources and support.

Lisa D. Dance (UX Designer & Founder) — ServiceEase

For ethical participant measurement, participants (aka people) should leave the research process “whole”—with no harm done. Here are some tactical ways to evaluate the potential harms that could occur, and mitigate beforehand:

✔ Ask and answer the hard questions

Is a subject matter potentially sensitive or traumatizing to participants? How vulnerable are participants? Do you have the appropriate training to conduct this research? What ways can you avoid harm? What ways are you avoiding harm?

✔ Provide fair compensation

Participants should be compensated. Research should not be viewed as an extraction exercise. Don't ask people to supply their time, information, and ideas for free—particularly for a profit-making organization. Compensation does not always have to be cash, but should be of value to the participant.

✔ Reconsider exclusions

Keep your participant pool deliberately wide in the beginning. Consider including participants outside your current personas/use cases to ensure you are not missing important nuances.

Question whether an exclusion is relevant. For example, don't default to employment status as a disqualifier. Question whether having a FT job really impacts whether a person would buy or use the product.

✔ Ease uncertainty

Participants may be nervous particularly if they have not been involved in research before. Use plain language for all your recruitment communications. Test recruitment materials to ensure they are clear.

✔ Provide technology assistance

Help participants with not only installing the software, but also with removing it. Don’t leave these programs to take up space on their devices when they may never use them again.

✔ Guard privacy

In addition to complying with applicable privacy laws, guard against accidentally viewing sensitive information unintentionally shared on screen. Proactively provide participants with ways to safeguard their privacy. For example, detailed instructions on closing out of emails, programs, and turning off notifications before a session.

✔ Value contributions

Only ask for information that you will use. Establish a plan for analyzing the data. Don’t collect tons of notes or videos that you will never analyze.

Jess Mons (Director of Business Intelligence) — dscout

We, as a larger community, are experiencing some of the same things. However, the way this collective experience impacts individuals is drastically different. Here are a few small ways I’ve tried to refocus energy around the participant’s experience.

✔ Set the tone

Introduce pronouns by leading by example. In online settings, add them to your signature or screen name. On the phone, add them after introducing yourself. This is a small step that can go a long way. They may or may not choose to share their own, but either way, you’ve created space for them to.

Verify their name. Give them the opportunity to share what they go by, in case it might be different from your records.

Express thanks right away and acknowledges the context. Everyone is dealing with their own set of challenging circumstances. Thank them for doing what they needed to do to show up or start the study.

✔ Test

Broaden who you run your questions, activities, or scripts by. Put extra effort into getting feedback from people with a variety of lived experiences prior to launch. If your research focuses on the experience of a specific demographic or group, find someone who is part of that group to review your language, asks, and provide recommendations (and pay them!).

✔ Offer support over deadline reminders

Center the participants’ experience when checking in. In my experiences, phrases like “Does this all make sense? Anything I can do to help support you?” spur engagement or motivation more than deadline reminders. If they have submitted anything and you’re pushing for full completion, offer feedback specifically tailored to what they’ve shared so far to help emphasize how valuable their input is.

✔ Express gratitude (again)

Upon completion, emphasize the thanks all over again.

✔ Follow through (down the road)

Did the research you collected show up in your product/service/work? Reach back out to folks to share the details of how. This will speak directly to how much you valued their time and thoughts.

Maya Geary (Experience Research Coordinator) — Thumbtack

We did a brainstorm with the research team and came up with a few items regarding how we go about ethical participant management.

✔ Source responsibly

Ask demographic questions in all screeners in order to optimize for a diverse set of participants in all studies. This helps us feel confident we are gathering insights from a representative sample.

✔ Prep before interviews

Explicitly set expectations and receive permission before scheduling. Make it clear what the session will entail, like if we'll ask for a tour of their home during a field interview, or if we'll be asking to view their expense reports or business tracking documents. Make sure participants know their rights, and that what they share will be kept confidential and only used within the company.

In a recent study, the goal was to understand the experience gaps of Black and Latinx pros and customers that may have confronted racial discrimination on and off Thumbtack:

“The focus of this study is to understand how race affects your interactions with service professionals and customers both on and off the Thumbtack platform. Your participation is voluntary and you may skip questions or end the interview whenever you want to. We will still compensate you for the interview. Please let me know if you have any questions about this.”

This gave participants a chance to opt-out and was also an effort to instill a sense of safety and trust that they could still do so even if they signed up. We also conducted these interviews by phone (normally we use Zoom), to acknowledge that the race of an interviewer may influence the stories we heard from Black and Latinx participants.

✔ Encourage participants and keep them motivated

Offer multiple incentive types to appeal to different participant preferences. Give "feedback on their feedback" throughout the session and reaffirm how helpful their insights are.

Additionally, enforce the fact that there are no "wrong answers." Make it clear that they are the expert and we are here to learn from their knowledge and experiences. Explain the purpose of the study and provide visibility into how they're helping us, or which product area their feedback is influencing.

Interested in reading more about participant management or ethical research practices? Check out...

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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