The Ethics of UX Research

As a UX researcher for a social media operation, Ute considers different interface designs that might allow users to make more social contacts. Ute gets a radical idea to test her hunches: What if we manipulated some of our current users’ profile pictures and measured the impact of those changes on their friends list? If successful, her research would provide valuable insight into the social media design elements most likely to result in sociability online. Of course, a successful study would also diminish the experiences of thousands already using her company’s service. In Ute’s mind, this is a simple A/B test, yet in the wake of recent controversy surrounding social media research, she’s starting to wonder if she should be concerned about the ethics of her work. As a research scientist and professor at two different universities, I work to better understand the social and psychological impact of technology on human communication. Our experiments have tested the limits of accepted research design practice, with designs ranging from the manipulation of romantic jealousy using social networks to studying the impact of induced stress and boredom on video game experiences, and a host of other experiments and observations. Yet, these studies all share a common element: they were all subject to intensive internal and external ethical review practices to ensure that participants in these studies were both informed (either before or after the study concluded) and unharmed. On these two points, recent debates surrounding the recent Facebook “emotional contagion” study have centered on notions of informed consent (Did Facebook users know they were in a study?) and minimizing harm (Were any...