Ethical user research

What is ethical research and why its important

‘Ethical conduct’ is more than doing the right thing. It is acting in the right spirit, out of respect and concern for others. Ethical conduct in human research is an ethos that should permeate the way we approach research. Conducting ethical human research aligns to global primary research standards, particularly with underrepresented groups.  

Primary research (researching directly with people) can cause a risk of harm ranging from loss of privacy or benefits to participants, damage to disadvantaged groups, or physical or mental harm to participants and researchers.  

Everyone involved in user research must behave in a way that is: 

  • Fair 

  • Transparent 

  • Does no harm 

  • Accountable 

  • Respectful  

Setting up ethical research

Research that poses a higher risk to people includes where you’re engaging vulnerable people, topics are sensitive or you’re intending to publish identifiable personal or health information.  

In these cases, we recommend you include other experts to give you advice about how to conduct your research safely and ethically.  

You can speak to experts in your organisation to help you identify ethical and privacy risks in your research. They can also advise whether your research should go through an ethics committee for approval. Teams in your organisation include:  

  • privacy team or your local privacy officer  

  • legal team in your organisation  

  • an expert in the domain of your study  

  • your organisation evaluation unit  

  • central research function or ethics panel (if your organisation has one). 

During the stage of setting up your research scope and proposal, it’s crucial to identify:  

  • what ethical issues need to be considered and addressed?  

  • whether external ethics review is required? Does your agency have a policy or guidelines relating to external ethics review?  

  • are there vulnerable or culturally distinct groups involved?  

  • is there linked data involved, with different consent and privacy issues?  

Support services for participants

The types of questions asked by researchers when conducting user research may bring up some sensitive topics with research participants. We should provide participants with information on services that they can reach out if they are feeling vulnerable or need to talk with someone.    

You can create a participant information sheet that includes:   

  • contact information for the researchers.    

  • a range of options for support services. As government, we must not preference one service over another.   

  • contact details for complaints about the research.   

Example discussion guide  

“Sometimes these sorts of sessions bring up things that people might want to talk about with a professional. If this turns out to be the case for you, the following are some organisations you could contact”.  

Support services 

Services What they do Phone number Website
Beyond Blue Beyond Blue provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health. 1300 224 636 Beyond Blue
Lifeline Lifeline is a national charity providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24 hour crisis support. 13 11 14 Lifeline
Domestic Violence Line NSW Domestic Violence Line provides counselling and referrals to women experiencing domestic and family violence. 1800 656 463 Domestic Violence Line
ReachOut helps under 25s with everyday questions through to tough times. Online chat ReachOut
NSW Ageing and Disability Abuse Helpline Find relevant information or services to report concerns of abuse, neglect or exploitation of an older person or adult with disability. 1800 628 221 NSW Ageing and Disability Abuse Helpline
Open Arms - Veterans & Families Counselling Service Veterans and veterans families counselling service 1800 011 046 Open Arms - Veterans & Families Counselling Service
Carer Advisory Service The Carer Advisory Service provides information and advice to carers and their families about carer supports and services. 1800 242 636 Carer Advisory Service
IDCARE Free and practical support for those who have experienced scams and fraudulent activity e.g. identity theft 1800 595 160 IDCARE
Translating and Interpreting Service Translating and Interpreting Service offers phone and on-site interpreter services.

Immediate phone interpreting: 13 14 50

TTY 1800 67 14 42

Translating and Interpreting Service
National Relay Service National Relay Service can help if you are deaf and/or find it hard hearing or speaking with people who use a phone. 133 677 National Relay Service
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