What it takes to do research with actual human beings

Sep 24 2013

This semester at Reese News Lab, we are creating business prototypes in an effort to make the news industry more sustainable. My group, temporarily dubbed “Graphics Clearinghouse,” is exploring the need for a company that would connect graphic design students and organizations with limited graphic design resources.

To uncover the ideal way for businesses to connect to freelance workers, we needed to interview humans, which meant we had to get approval from the UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Human Research Ethics. The office supervises the university’s research studies through smaller committees known as Institutional Review Boards.

Navigating the approval application took us down an Alice in Wonderland-type rabbit hole that initially left us with more questions than answers. We struggled to unpack a project whose course would be largely determined by client feedback, which we obviously couldn’t yet gather.

To get past our confusion, we had to accept the fact that we didn’t need all the answers right now. Although the application asked for extensive details about our project, it didn’t require us to guess the project’s findings.

One of the application’s required fields was a description of our subjects. Based on preliminary research, we found that the organizations with the most design needs and therefore our ideal subjects were members of media organizations like newspapers. If we had not needed to quickly identify our subjects for the application, we would have wasted time interviewing organizations that wouldn’t be interested in our product.

Once we pinpointed this group, the application required us to describe how we would contact and interview our participants. We submitted several different contact scripts that fluctuated based on the type of subject and on the type of contact. For example, contacting a student through email would require a different script than contacting a media professional by phone.

Creating the script for our user testing procedure was one of the most difficult parts of the application. At that point, we could not visualize how our company website would connect media organizations with design students.

Once again, the application forced us to think ahead and create navigation instructions for our future website. We grumbled a bit then, but now that we are creating a paper prototype of our website we are grateful for the planning.

Because our project poses little threat to the participants – a paper cut would be the worst-case scenario – it won the IRB seal of approval. We were thankful that our thorough project description garnered us an exemption from a full IRB review.

We originally saw the IRB application as a barrier to our user testing, a process we had to go through to create a design service desirable to the industry. We didn’t realize that it just added to our research. Before we completed the application, the “Graphics Clearinghouse” concept only existed in our minds. Now we can succinctly convey our ideas, a skill that will help us pitch our product in the future and possibly make it a reality.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *