The best work on digital products and services is inspired by the voice of the user. Kat Quatermass of Neontribe considers the impacts of research with people with challenging stories to tell.
Neontribe recently ran some workshops on the topic of user research for Tech for Good Build participants. In the workshops, we talked a bit about how we often need to reflect on the safeguarding challenges around conducting user research with vulnerable users. Many of the themes that we wrote about in this blog early last year still ring true today and we thought it'd be worth sharing again.
I’m spending a lot of time thinking about this at the moment. Along with a whole set of follow up questions:
So far I’m certain of only two things.
Neontribe is a digital agency that spends half our time working in the charity sector. We’ve always been huge advocates of user research, with most of our developers as well as our UX/UI and content/strategy folk participating in sessions. When the company started, we delivered a couple of projects with Channel 4’s youth engagement team so we’ve always had some understanding of safeguarding. Our approach has been to ‘follow the safeguarding procedures of our client organisation or charity’. Broadly we think that’s a good start.
But over the past couple of years, we’ve encountered some situations that have made us want to do more.
We knew the project might be distressing, and it was. Even at the horizon scanning stage, our developers found that testing existing tools designed for people experiencing abuse led them to soul search about the nature of their own relationships. In usability testing we needed to provide support after a participant told us “its ok, I’m only crying cos that one [of the women’s stories we had used] could have been me”. And we had several participants who wanted to tell us about their journey out of abuse, before they felt ready to engage with the testing process.
We’d taken some steps in advance, broadly following The Haven’s safeguarding policies.
But we hadn’t done other things that would have been useful, both for us and the client. We hadn’t:
The second situation was one where we were less prepared.
We were doing user research for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, helping them and their partners create new web pages explaining safeguarding responsibilities to charities working less regularly with people at risk.
The research participants were all people working or volunteering in charities. We had exercises designed to help us create process focused user journeys such as “how do you find information about your responsibilities” and “how do you share it with colleagues”. We had not foreseen a need to plan for participant distress.
At two sessions, participants arrived already visibly stressed, leading us to quickly decide that we couldn’t ignore their immediate needs. Instead we listened, whilst they vented, almost tearfully, about the strain of implementing safeguarding practices in their organisations. But afterwards, we second guessed ourselves. If we had stuck to the original research plan, would that have been less distressing for them?
When we think about our research participants only through their professional identity it becomes easy to forget their human identity underneath. Safeguarding professionals have a saying that “no-one should ever deliver safeguarding training without being prepared to handle disclosures and other difficult conversations”. Looking back we could have applied this saying to our user research.
Additional resource: DigiSafe is a step-by-step digital safeguarding guide, designed for charities designing new services or taking existing ones online.
With thanks to Joe Roberson.