User research in sensitive spaces – protecting researchers and participants

UX research takes the guesswork out of product design, helping us test assumptions and ensuring we solve the problems of real users.

At Lighthouse we believe everyone working on a digital product can and should hone their skills in user interview techniques.

A one-to-one chat, usually conducted by phone or video call, is an incredibly powerful way to uncover insight gems, and certainly not just for the specialists.

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Conducting user research on sensitive topics

We recently worked with the world’s largest biotech business on a new product that aims to improve the lives of people suffering from a wide variety of chronic illnesses and diagnoses.

Our research naturally involved talking to people living with those conditions, asking some tough questions and receiving some potentially upsetting answers.

It was important to balance getting the most out of the research phase with protecting the wellbeing of everyone involved – participants and researchers alike.

Empathy is key when it comes to designing a platform that will resonate with people who want to improve their health.

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Safeguarding our researchers

During any project where we conduct user research on sensitive topics we put protocols in place for design team members to debrief together after each call.

They also met individually at the end of each day with a member of our leadership team, so no-one was leaving work with things still on their mind.

These debriefs, and a follow up period of individual self-care, were booked as part of the programme of work, and built in to rotas.

Carving out non-negotiable time for these wellbeing check-ins – and having a clear plan of where to seek further help if needed – was an essential task for the success of the project.

We’re not robots that recite questions. We’re people first, and UX researchers second (and lots of other roles in between).

Dominika Prikrylova
UX Researcher,

Considerations for user research on sensitive topics

Good research practice is good research practice, full stop.

The techniques we used on this project shouldn’t be viewed as ‘for sensitive topics only’ – we think they’re best practice for any ethical, effective research that informs a human-centred digital experience.

All user interviews require care, thought and making everyone feel comfortable, but it’s even more important than usual to nail this when the experience we’re designing deals with a challenging topic.

#1 Be clear in your recruitment

People must understand what they’re getting involved in to be able to give informed consent. Be transparent and give as much context as possible up-front about what the research is trying to achieve.

If you’re working with an external specialist partner to help find participants, make sure you provide a clear recruitment brief and screener questions to ensure you’re all on the same page before you get started.

Such a partner will also have the processes in place to deal with any necessary regulatory compliance for the industry you’re working in. It’s important stuff!

#2 Steer carefully

Our team had to maintain balance between building a rapport with participants, creating a supportive environment that allowed them to share their thoughts freely, and keeping things from wandering too far off topic.

Researchers should be careful to acknowledge painful or difficult admissions, by saying “I’m sorry that happened to you”, for example, and give participants space to talk but be prepared to (gently!) move conversations on in a strategic way.

Whilst it may seem a shortcut to seeming empathetic, be careful not to offer your own experiences or to suggest solutions. Your role is to remain objective, to listen actively, but not to advise.

We’re there to learn, not to take over, to prod our participants’ sore spots or make them uncomfortable.

#3 Plan a diversion

If a conversation is getting too heavy, and either researcher or participant is getting upset, having a question on hand that’ll help change direction and de-escalate things can be incredibly helpful.

“What did you have for breakfast?” or “tell me about the last time you went shopping” instantly shifts the focus and provides a tactful subject change when the previous topic isn’t benefiting anyone.

What is a sensitive topic, anyway?

It’s also worth saying a little about defining sensitive topics and vulnerable research participants.

In our experience, what’s sensitive for one person may not be sensitive for another, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ type of vulnerability.

The approach we take has to flex depending on the specific vulnerability of our participants – for example, interviewing children is a different ballgame to working with people who’ve encountered sexual abuse, or someone with a life-limiting illness.

As regards sensitive topics, we can reasonably expect that if we’re designing a product that deals with, for example, medical conditions, bereavement or addiction, we should expect tougher conversations than if we’re working on a navigation app.

But it’s also true that discussion which triggers emotion in researchers or participants can come up in the most unexpected scenarios or lines of conversation.

Bear in mind too the external factors that can affect us all.

A research participant with an ailing parent, who’s just had a row with their spouse and who has money worries gnawing away at them may become more emotional in an interview about an ‘easy’ topic than a mentally robust, optimistic and well supported cancer patient.

Just as we shouldn’t work off unvalidated assumptions in our designs, we should be careful not to hold biases as to who is vulnerable and what is sensitive when we approach our user research.

This idea that there’s “sensitive” and “non-sensitive” research is a false binary….We should never assume a subject will or will not be interpreted as “sensitive” to folks—that’s a subject position we could never take or have.

Qualitative Research Team
Code for America

In conclusion…

Conducting user research is crucial for designing a human-centred digital experience.

Solid research practice is required for any ethical and effective research, and all user interviews require care, thought, and making everyone feel comfortable.

It’s also important to consider that what is sensitive for one person may not be sensitive for another, and the approach taken must be flexible depending on the specific vulnerability of the participants.

Above all, empathy is key when it comes to designing a platform that resonates with users.