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Responsible Research

Consent is freely given

Phil Hesketh Photo of Phil Hesketh

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There is a natural imbalance of power that exists between the researcher and the person they’re learning from. There are some things you can do which help to make the participant more comfortable.

There are lots of ways to address this, from making the person comfortable at the beginning of a session to using games as a research method.

This article is part 4 of a series of 4 on some best practices around informed consent. You can read Part 1: Informed consent best practicePart 2: the data we collect and Part 3: Decision making capacity.

With regards to consent, this imbalance of power might manifest itself as the participant being put on the spot and not wanting to appear awkward. More often, it appears when they’re attracted to the study by an incentive and agreeing to things they might not normally be comfortable with.

Photo of someone on a beach at sunset, by Mohamed Nohassi

One good way to mitigate this is to give the person as much notice about your research as possible. This gives them more opportunities to think about what you’re asking and have time to change their mind before taking part. While this is dependant on the context of your work, getting a consent out to someone at least a week or two in advance and then following up with a reminder before the session is good practice.

Pop up research

When we need to literally put someone on the spot, try to structure your approach so that you’re not getting personally identifiable information from the get go. Typically, pop up research might ask a relatively ambiguous question while giving the person the opportunity to tell you more if they want to.

If you break that up into stages (first the ambiguous question, then some PII geared towards following up), you would create the opportunity to ask remotely and share more information about what you’re doing before your next meeting with them.


The other thing that often trips people up is when offering an incentive. A lot of researchers refer to this as a “thank you for your time” and not an incentive. This is better, but in order for consent to be freely given it must be accepted beforehand that if they change their mind about taking part having turned up on the day, you still need to give them the incentive.

Personally, I’ve found that recruiting on shared social value (the goals of the project align with the goals of the person) is effective and then giving them a “thank you for their time”, even if they change their mind, works pretty well. This is assuming that there is a shared social value - if you’re just trying to figure out what brand of beans someone wants to buy, then you might lean more on the incentive, but you still need to make sure they get it no matter what.

Figuring out how much to offer people as a thank you for their time can also be challenging. I’ve found that this often requires a judgement based on how much they perceive their time is worth to them - or how conscious they are of it. User Interviews did a study of over 25,000 researchers who offered incentives to participants and created a calculator to help people figure out how much to incentivise people - well worth a read!

Thanks for reading

That’s all for now - I hope you’ve found this series to be useful or it’s given you some ideas around how to reflect on your consent process. There’s a lot more to go at here - let me know if you have questions about anything I’ve touched on - or if there is something I’ve missed. I look forward to hearing from you!

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