User Study Thoughts #2 – Do you need ethics?

If you’re planning on running a user study, you’ll be interacting with other people, which means that you need to get ethics approval for you study. If you’re doing an experiment that doesn’t directly involve other people, you may or may not need ethics. A study where you program a few algorithms and compare their performance doesn’t require ethics. But a study where you analyze traces of player data from a game log does.

I’ll be needing to fill out ethics for my upcoming study. At the moment, our ethics site is down as they are changing the form we fill out. Hopefully the new version will be much shorter and much easier to fill out. Often the wording on ethics applications leaves much to be desired. At my current university the form has changed three times in the four years I’ve been here!

How difficult it is to get ethics approval for you study will also depend on how your study will use people and/or their information. If you’re going to have them test some new drug, then yes, it’s going to be difficult to get approval. On the other hand, if you’re just going to have them compare two programs, then it’s usually really easy. One of the large deciding factors is the level of risk your study poses for the participants. And this risk does not have to be physical – gathering private information about a participant would also contain a higher level of risk.

For the first user study I ran, I actually got my ethics approval in less than 24 hours. I submitted it one evening, only to have my approval waiting in my inbox first thing the following morning.

When filling out a user study ethics form, you usually need to provide the following information (among other requirements):

  • Any documents the participants will see (surveys, consent forms, etc)
  • Any risks to the participants (side effects from a new drug? violence in a video?)
  • What you are testing (your hypothesis)
  • How you are going to recruit participants
  • Will you pay participants? or is there any other “reward” for participating?
  • How you plan on anonymizing the data
  • Where you will keep the data stored and who will have access to it

When you get ethics approval, there are a couple of things you should be aware of:

  1. Time limit. How long is your approval valid for? Here, it’s usually 1 year from the date of issue.
  2. Changes to your study. If you change your study, what changes require you to get your approval re-evaluated and which ones are okay to just do? Most ethics forms require you to submit all documentation that the user study participants will see (such as any surveys and consent forms). Should you need to slightly change the wording on a survey (say you change the grouping of age categories) that’s probably fine (depending on your ethics board) to just do. But if you have participates watching a series of videos you’ve produced, producing new videos will probably require that they also get screened for approval.
This week, as the ethics form comes back online I need to work out exactly how I want to run my experiment and start getting the documentation in order. It’s always better to apply early, and then be able to run your experiment when you’re ready, then to be scrambling about at the last minute.

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