Tips for UX Research in Higher Education

If you work in higher education and you are trying to apply user-centered design methods into your product or web design process, you are in luck because you surrounded by the users of your products and websites.  With that said, there are a few things that you need to pay attention to. Below are some tips I picked up over the years while working at Bellevue College:

Follow best practices in conducting research

Following best practices is a given, but if you don’t know what those are, pick up a book or google it. If you are new to the topic, here are some books to get you started:

Be cognizant of FERPA (aka student privacy)

FERPA is essentially a federally mandated policy regarding student privacy.  When it comes to user studies, you need to be mindful of what information you share about students. When I quoted students in reports or presentations, I generally only used first names, type of student (major or program) and how many years they were in the program.  I also didn’t share this information publicly.  If you want to know exactly what you can share, go to the policy and find the section called “Directory Information.”  Everything listed as “Directory Information” is information you can share without prior student consent.  Colleges get to define what is called directory information, so this list will be different from college to college.

Read up on your college’s policy on research involving human subjects

If you work at a college or university that conducts research, then there should be a policy on research involving human subjects and a group called the Institutional Review Board (IRB) that approves research studies.  The reason for this policy is to make sure that researchers are conducting ethical research studies and that they are not causing harm to their study participants.

The first thing you should do is read those policies and procedures.  You’ll likely find the policy by searching for “IRB”, “Institutional Review Board” or “human subjects” on your institutions website, intranet or policy and procedure handbook.

Do you want to publish your findings (anywhere)?

If you want to publish your findings in any publicly accessible way, you’ll need to get approval through the IRB.  You should be able to go through an expedited approval process because your study is unlikely to cause harm to your participants.  The expedited process skips the part where the entire review board reviews your plan for your study. Instead, you just fill out a form and get it approved by the chairperson of the Institutional Review Board. The procedure governing the IRB should have all the info you need to go through that process.

Are you just doing guerilla research and don’t care about publishing?

If you don’t care about publishing your research, then you can skip the IRB. The reason for this is that you aren’t trying to come out with generalizable knowledge through your research findings.   With that said, you still have to follow the requirements stated by the IRB.

What about white lies?

There are several blog posts that recommend that you should lie to your participants about your role in the design process.  I disagree with that sentiment. But, if you do decide to do this, you are technically purposefully deceiving your participants.  This means that you will need to go through the IRB.  In addition, since any deceit blurs the line of ethics, this type of research would most likely need to go through full Institutional Review Board approval, which may take weeks or months to get approved.

Is it worth it?  No.  You may as well get somebody else to moderate your studies.

Be mindful of minors

If your work involves research with minors, you will need to go through IRB and you’ll need parental consent. You could just skip user studies with minors. The first question you can ask a potential participant is their age and disqualify from the study if they are under 18.


If you work for a state institution, you know it is hard to hand out cash for compensating users.  I suggest you connect with the bookstore or any of the food services-type facilities and buy gift cards from them. For the last three years I worked at Bellevue College, I always had a stack of coffee shop gift cards in my office.

You may also want to connect with your institution’s foundation office. They can give you ideas on how to compensate users.  If you work at a large research institution, you may want to talk to folks in departments that routinely conduct research studies to learn about how they handle the compensations.

That’s it!

That’s all I have for you.  I hope you found these tips helpful.