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What kind of legal agreement do we have to solicit from user research participants prior to involving them in a user study? I'm specifically interested in diary studies, but I guess it's pretty much the same in all methods.

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What kind of legal agreement are you talking about? What are your concerns when there isn't one? – jazZRo Nov 18 '13 at 12:46

Caveat: I am not a lawyer, I am a user researcher. If you are concerned about what legal agreement is necessary before you conduct research, you should talk to a lawyer.

In general, most user research has a Non-Disclosure Agreement in place with the participant that states that the research participant will not discuss the research that they took part in with anyone else. This is done to protect your intellectual property. If you work for a company, you should have your legal counsel draw up a NDA (if they don't have one already).

If your research participants are professionals who will be completing the research representing their company (for example, if you were doing diary studies with medical professionals in a hospital), the individual might not be empowered to sign an NDA. It will probably need to go through their company's legal department. In this case, you will probably need to let your legal counsel talk to their legal counsel.

If you are dealing with participants in an enterprise environment, or healthcare, or any other research in which they could be revealing their own confidential information to you, you might also need to sign an NDA that you will not reveal anything confidential either. This is to protect the company's intellectual property, as well as deal with any privacy concerns either on the part of the individual who is participating in our research or any information that the individual has access to about others. To go back to my medical professional example, they will probably want to ensure that you don't reveal anything about their hospital's practices, as well as anything else that you could encounter during the course of your research. If you have to do this, you should talk to your legal counsel to ensure that the NDA is compatible with the research that you want to do.

In short, you should talk to a lawyer. If you work for a company, talk to your employer's lawyers. If you are an individual, you should talk to a lawyer that specializes in intellectual property law to ensure that your IP is protected and that you are not doing anything that could run you afoul of any relevant IP, privacy, or other laws.

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This focus on NDA sounds like US practice? I have done user research in Germany, and the major legal concerns are to prove that we are not hurting the users' Informationelle Selbstbestimmung rights (privacy-related) and Arbeitsnehmer rights (their right to not be discriminated against by their employer). We had to get our questionnaire approved by the Betriebsrat, an organ looking after employees' rights. Nobody cared about any NDAs. This is why I think that the whole questionnaire is unanswerable: the answer will differ for each legislation. – Rumi P. Nov 19 '13 at 11:14
I do work for a US company. When I have done research with participants overseas, the NDA requirements have been the same, including the participant's company requiring an NDA with me and my company. I can't speak to the experience of someone who is not working in the US and is conducting research with people who are not in the US. – nadyne Nov 19 '13 at 17:56
It is understandable that you cannot speak of things out of what you have experienced. I just wanted to point out that it will vary a lot between countries, so the information of the context (in this case country) about which you are speaking is an important part of the answer. – Rumi P. Nov 20 '13 at 10:11

I agree with nadyne's answer that you should consult with a lawyer regarding proprietary information regarding the organization and NDA.

However, I'd also add that users should sign a usability test consent form. This will be necessary if you are recording the session (audio and/or video). The form should include how the participant's data will be used, what the session will consist of and allowing the participant to end the session at any time. There are a couple of stock consent forms around the internet. I hope this helps!

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