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Conducting ethical internal research

Stickers saying Users First

What is internal research? 

In government, we sometimes do user research with colleagues - other civil servants or contractors who work for government departments. These people can be users, even if they’re in your department or team.

Internal research could be on topics ranging from service or product work, like the GDS service manual, to surveys and interviews about experiences, like the reorganisation of departments. 

If you’re consulting the users of your service, product, or project about their thoughts, opinions, and feelings, or testing how they behave or think in certain situations, it’s very likely to be internal research where ethical considerations must still apply.

Why is ethical research important?

Internal research is worthy of serious ethical consideration - just as external research is. 

Although information about companies or public authorities is not subject to GDPR, employees’ information can be personal data. For example, when you’re doing internal research you usually collect an employee’s name, their role, their email address, and other information that can identify them. This is personal data. 

Internal research also gathers the opinions, feelings, and experiences of employees, and can be on controversial topics, such as the reorganisations of departments, internal processes, and internal teams or services. As researchers, we have a duty to ensure that our research participants can’t be identified, even if they’re colleagues of ours.

Some processes involved in internal research ethics may seem more rigorous than the processes used for external research. For example, it is far more likely that internal participants could be recognised from recordings of sessions – they could even be identified from quotes. They could also be identified through 'jigsaw identification', which is when someone can be identified based on a description of their work. This could potentially make participants feel uncomfortable, especially if you have discussed sensitive or controversial topics. 

Getting informed consent from internal participants

Even if you know your participant and they’re a colleague, it’s best practice to get consent from them to use their personal data, to take notes in research sessions, and to audio or video record sessions.

You should explain in plain language:

  • why you’re doing the research
  • what team you work in
  • what kind of topics you will be asking participants about
  • what you’ll be doing with the data
  • who has access to the data you collect
  • who will be conducting the research

As this blog post on how to carry out user research with colleagues points out, it’s also a good idea to give participants a choice of interviewer if you have multiple people conducting the research.

You should also give internal participants the option to individually specify if they give consent to:

  • notes being taken
  • their audio being recorded
  • being video recorded
  • their screens being recorded
  • having a notetaker present
  • having an observer present (you should ideally tell them who this will be)

In addition, you should consider that participants may also feel obliged or pressured to take part in your research, especially if their manager or someone senior to them has put them forward for it. It’s a good idea to make it clear in your research information sheet and consent form that:

  • participants are under no pressure to take part
  • it won’t affect their job if they do, or do not take part
  • they can withdraw from the research at any time, including after it is conducted 

Recruiting and anonymity 

If you’re putting calls out for participants in public places like Slack, Teams, or Google Spaces, people might be able to see who’s volunteered to take part in your research. 

When you’re recruiting participants and booking time in their calendars, other colleagues may also be able to see if they’re taking part in your research.

There are several things you can do to maintain participants’ anonymity while you’re recruiting:

  • encourage people to contact you directly (via email or DMs) if they want to take part, instead of commenting in the thread
  • make research sessions a private appointment in people’s calendars 

Running the research session

Be aware that some participants may be in the office during your session. If your participant is surrounded by colleagues, this could affect what they say. To help mitigate this, you could book a room for them in their building. Or, you could ask them if they work at home some days and book the session for that day.

Your experiences

What have you learned during internal-facing research? Are there any tips you have for others who might be conducting internal research? Please add your comments below.


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  1. Comment by Ifte posted on

    Fantastic points! Thank you for sharing this, Erin.

  2. Comment by Jackie posted on

    Some great tips here for carrying out user research with internal users, and to consider that they are much more likely to be identified. Interesting question around informed consent - ie is this true consent where an EE takes part? Making it clear that any participation is voluntary and there is no pressure to do so, can ensure consent is 'true consent' but this may mean fewer users take part. Ensuring anonymity is also key.

  3. Comment by Lindsay Branston posted on

    Love this. Having moved from public to private sector I'm writing an ethics checklist and was just looking at the 'internal staff' bit so great timing.