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Ethics and user research in the Apprenticeship Service

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User researcher Lydia presenting a meeting on ethics in user research at the ESFA

Lydia is a junior user researcher in the Apprenticeship Service looking at how ethics is being used in user research within the ESFA.

The conversation around ethics in user research is fairly recent. This may be because user research as a profession is quite new and has stemmed from topics which have their own ethical background, such as social research and market research.

The history of ethics in research can be traced back to the Nuremberg Code in 1947. This came after the Nuremberg trials, where doctors were tried for human experiments, and the code introduced clear rules on what was legal in research. Specifically, ‘informed consent’ arose from the Nuremberg Code – that is, ensuring you have a record from participants to show they understand, and have agreed, to take part in your research.

Ethics training and sharing learning

I first encountered the ethics conversation back in March when the Government Digital Service (GDS) hosted a pilot training session on ethics. Although we already have ethical processes in place, I went to this session ready to learn more about ethics in user research, and though it was informative, for me, it sparked further discussion and questions. For example, from the practicalities of where to store participant consent forms to more complex moral issues such as how to interact with participants from vulnerable groups.

Then in May, I attended a cross-government meet-up around ethics which focused on solving the ethical problems individual user researchers faced, such as how and what levels of information should be kept confidential. From this, I began to wonder how ethics ties into collective user research, and how it can be more of a team exercise as opposed to an individual task.

Loaded with information and a goal to get others refocused on ethics, I decided to share what I’d learnt with the rest of the team of user researchers at the ESFA. I wanted to see what their own experiences of ethical dilemmas were, and how we could collaboratively bring together our knowledge and document our ways of working to share with other research communities.

The cross-government conversations around ethics became a talking point in our clan and has helped solidify our processes. We held a workshop where everyone shared their experiences, inside and outside of the ESFA, and we discussed how we have addressed ethical risk and solved ethical problems we faced.

Ethical guidance and advice

As a result of this workshop, we produced our ‘ethical user research ways of working’ split into two parts: ethical guidance and ethical advice.

Ethical guidance is centred around how researchers can undertake research more ethically, for example, not carrying out pop-up research on your own, bring another researcher or member of your team and always let somebody know where you are. This goes beyond the statutory Data Protection Act regulation of using personal information.

Ethical advice helps researchers if they encounter any ethical issues. For example, if you need to carry out potentially sensitive research talk to other researchers in your team about it and set up a peer review, or ask your lead user researcher for help or to set up a peer review for you, if you want to remain anonymous.

We are creating posters to show our ways of working to display within our research rooms and across the building. Hopefully these will be a reminder for researchers as well as making other colleagues aware of the ethics surrounding user research. These ways of working are not static and will be updated and reviewed every few months to make sure we are actively discussing how to be more ethical.

The last cross-government ethics meet-up was hosted by HMRC in September and some topics discussed include researcher self-care and mental health. Following this we will be bringing these topics into the discussion at our next User Research clan meeting.

For more information about cross-government ethics meet-ups read this cross-government user research ethics network blog.

For more information about ethics read the Social Research Association’s ethical guidance.

If you want to know more about user research and ethics within the Apprenticeship Service please contact


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