Doing ethical research with vulnerable users

(This post has been sitting in draft for a few months. Today I was tagged in a discussion about researching with vulnerable/distressed people and I just pressed publish. The post started out as an email I sent to the UK GDS User Research mailing list on the topic of doing user research with vulnerable people.)


In 2017-2018 I worked on a web service for compulsive gamblers created by a non-profit organisation (funded by the gambling industry) at the request of the UK Gambling Commission.

(NB: Many participants would disagree with this “compulsive gambler” label, but according prior research they were).

The service “epic user story” was for:

a compulsive gambler to be able to ban themselves from accessing online gambling websites and smartphone gambling apps

What follows below is a mixture of learnings I had about my professional work and how to conduct research with vulnerable users, and also advice to others who may need to do the same

Seek professional help!

I was reasonably comfortable with my approach in terms of ethics, and consent. However I still felt I needed expert psychological review of my approach to the work.

I made contact via a project stakeholder (who was also a trained clinical psychologist and addiction therapist) with a chartered psychologist and academic researcher also connected to the project.

This was because the project was going into a difficult psychological area which I was not trained in. I am not a professional psychologist. I’m a user centred design professional.

The purpose was to review my intial approach to the project, review my consent documentation, and “after research” support and care information.

They also provided me with some academic research papers to understand more. I used these papers to carry out a short literature review.

This lit. review helped me enormously to understand the psychological states my participants were in, their rational for their behaviour. It gave me a better understanding of the language they would use.

Remote / in person research

Initially I expected to carry out this research in person. In person research allows for more emotionally rich research – you can see the non-verbal communications we all make.

When it became difficult to carry out in-person research I switched to telephone and Skype calls.

This proved to be very successful. People seemed to open up and speak frankly. I can’t say why – if it was the distance, speaking to a “disembodied voice?

This was totally unexpected, but made for better quality research. The learning for me was challenge your expectations of research methods.

For the participants

Frame research clearly

In the pre-research session communications I made it very clear that I was not a gambling support therapist – I was not capable of discussing effects of gambling on the persons life. I was designing software.

While this may have an effect on limiting discussions about the reasons your participant has been become vulnerable, it should also limit cathartic but difficult conversations which you are not trained to deal with. This is to protect both the participant and youself.

Anonymity by default

Due to the potentially massively negative effects (financially, professionally, psychologically) on their lives of their gambling activities, I mandated this research would be anonymous.

The only person who would know the participants real identity was myself and my colleague who was present for the session.

When transcribing I removed all references to specific names, cities – I replaced them with geographic regions (e.g. north east/south west), companies, actual ages – I replaced them with ranges (e.g. 20-25 years old).

The transcriptions were available to my project team members but not the originals.

Clear scope, explicit consent

I made the research scope clear – I am researching how the participant needs to carry out this goal of banning themselves from gambling using the system we are building.

I explained I am not a trained counsellor and so cannot legally, give advice or support about gambling activity. I made sure:

  • I got clear written informed consent
  • that they understood they were free to stop the research session at any moment
  • that they understood they could refuse to answer any question

The purpose of consent is to put the participant in the position of power – not to have them “exert” this power, but to show them they can trust you. You will do no harm.

During my interviews, I asked personal questions. The purpose was to understand how they would react if they were asked a similar quesiton during the registeration process.

To my surprise, participants were very willing to answer them – they knew this service would help them deal with their current situation.

The “value” proposition was clear to them.

Be patient

Like doing research with participans who have access needs, you also need to be more patient with participants.

Some may want to go off the research topics, and you need to be more patient and empathetic with them than in a less emotive situation.

When they cried we took a break.

Be silent

Your job is being the user researcher. Listening to the participant.

When dealing with difficult topics, this can often mean a lot of silence. You’re job is to be comfortable with awkward situations. That often means being uncomfortable (within reason) so that the participant is not.

Be comfortable with silence.

Address research sessions confusions (and iterate)

After doing 2 pilot studies on the project I found some participants seemed confused – they seemed to think *I* was doing psychology research into compulsive gambling.

I adapted my research interview preamble to make this explicit – going to the point of saying it was against the law for me to ask about the psychological effect of their activity.

I listened and then tried to bring the conversation back on topic – the topic I was researching was what compulsive gamblers needed from the website we were developing.

Provide aftercare

Once the “research”part of the session finished, I gave the person some time to gather their thoughts, and reflect. This was often just 4-5 minutes of silence where nobody spoke.

Once finished, I then provided them with signposting to gambling support signposting in their community.

Some people may not deal well with the realisation they were a compulsive gambler. Some were genuinely not aware of the support available.

So you need to provide them with signposting to professionals who can help.

The purpose of this support is to shorten the gap between the decision and action to get the support – don’t just provide a national resource.

I gave participant a small flier with information about support they could access local to them – a telephone number, a local support office.

This was not judgemental, it was to assist them in the event they made the decision to follow it.

Respect, don’t patronise or sympathise

The participants I spoke with, even though their lives were in terrible situations, didn’t to want my pity.

They were very interested in helping as they waned to help others in similar situations.

I tried to keep my distance in terms of sympathy. Give them a tissue, not a hug. When they cried we stopped for a while.

If you feel you are beyond your capabilities reassess. Don’t be afraid of asking more experienced colleagues for help.

For the researcher

It is very easy to forget about the impact of research on the researcher.
Normally we are researching light-hearted topics. They don’t effect us much.

This was not one of those cases. After a solid week of interviews, hearing about the effects of the participants gambling activity started to have an effect on me.
I expected to hear some difficult stories but I wasn’t prepared for the sheer number of them.

On reflection the input of the chartered psychologist professional minimised this.

Do no harm (to the researcher)

I was not a professional psychologist and so needed support too. The psychologist who advised me on how to insure my research minimised any effects on the participants also had a lot of good advice most practical being – expect to be effected by the research.

I was planning a large portion of my research to be qualititative interviews, with formative and summative usability testing.

The chartered psychologist reminded me of some good supports to put in place for myself and the participants:

  • designate a colleague(s) to speak to about it when the research effects you. Speak with them regularly
  • it is acceptable to talk to this colleague about your feelings or reactions to the data you find
  • it is not acceptable to identify participants in any way or talk about the person individually, or their individual circumstances

(Personally, I was lucky that I had someone at home to talk about how the research affected me. This was very helpful.)

It was helpful to have a colleague with me at times (acting as “note-taker”). Post-research session we spoke about what we’d just heard, and we’d deal with the situation

Final thoughts

While this may sound like a terrible experience, it was anything but that. It stretched my user-centred design research skills greatly, but led to good, actionable, ethical research which was used to build a service that had a positive impact on it’s users.

Looking back, I don’t think I’d have done anything differently, except maybe taken more breaks between interviews.

Fixing fn button controls on your POP_OS laptop post-update 18.10

I’ve been using my XPS 13 developer machine more and more over the past few months after recently installing POP_OS (Ubuntu based with a very nice and usable Gnome 3 theme).

Last week I updated to POP_OS 18.10, which brought lots of changes. One of those unexpected changes was the function (F buttons) stopped controlling things like sound, media player, turning on/off keyboard backlighting, turning on/off wireless connectivity.

Continue reading “Fixing fn button controls on your POP_OS laptop post-update 18.10”


(This is an open letter to The Association of Computer Machinery)

Dear ACM Events team,

This is a light-hearted constructive criticism of your events sign-up form. It is meant to be helpful.

In a previous life I was an engineer but I went to the light side and became a Human-Computer Interaction professional.

My profession is user-centred designer – user researcher and ux designer.

One of the great things of studying in university was getting access to your wealth of academic research. Since then, I’ve stayed a member of the ACM as I didn’t want to loose that access.

Even though I recognise that your focus (certainly up ’til now) has been computer professionals who write, develop, create technical works, I still stayed a member. I think sometimes UX people feel like the unpopular cousin. 😉

(Aside: I say up ’til now, as I am well aware of the recent update of the ACM Code of Ethics 1)Link to ACM Code of Ethics I am also continually amazed by the human-centred design articles, commentary and thoughts that are expressed in the pages of CACM. Not forgetting the Interations magazine.)

Be still my beating ♥

You can imagine my happiness when I saw the below mail that popped into my mailbox – “Register now: March 7 Talk on inclusive UX Design with Google’s Jen Devins and Nithya Sambasivan 2)Link to the ACM’s event page!

Finally! The ACM is holding a really interesting talk about my profession. I’ve got to sign-up.

I quickly scrolled to the bottom of the form to get my details submitted, but when it came to my professional role….my heart sank. These are the only professional roles I could find.

No explicit mention of user researcher, user centred designer. All I could do was choose “other”. 🙁

I’ve had the same issue when I’ve registered for other events and talks. The most applicable box(es) I can put myself in are:

  • Researcher – industry
  • Practicioner – Software/Apps Designer/Dev/Eng or
  • Practicioner – systems architect/Designer/Engi

I appreciate that you’ve got statistics, metrics, and other data to run, but I’d argue the data you’re gathering is skewed, as you’re possibly not gathering the right data.

Me, a practictioner – user centred designer, is definitely not the same as Jane, a practictioner – Software Engineer.

What I’d like to suggest

Please consider including some professional roles for human-computer interaction professionals.

If you ask me, the least would be:

  • user researcher and
  • ux designer

I hope you’ll consider my suggestion. Thanks for reading this.


References   [ + ]

1. Link to ACM Code of Ethics
2. Link to the ACM’s event page

Enabling remote desktop acces to POP_OS from Mac OS

I’ve recently installed POP_OS on my Dell XPS laptop. I want to use it to continue experimenting with open source Design applications, and other things.

I want to get remote desktop access, so I can securely access it remotely over the same network.

To do this I’ll need two things: to setup an SSH tunnel between the Mac OS machine (from now on called steve) and the POP_OS machine (from now on called lenny).

Setup SSH on lenny

SSH, Secure Shell, is a secure way to access Linux based computers, remotely. The connection between the client and the server is encrypted.

This essentially means that someone else cannot listen in to the connection. Configure SSH 1)System 76 have short instructions: as in the video below.

Fig 1: configure SSH on POP_OS

There’s a nice overview video explainer 2)A nice Youtube video explaining SSH: of how SSH and tunnelling works.

Create SSH tunnel on Steve

Using the great SSH tunnel application, SecurePipes, it’s easy to setup the SSH tunnel.

To do this you need:

  • the IP address of lenny
  • your username and password on lenny
  • enter lenny’s IP address into “SSH Server Address” and “Remote Host address” fields like below


Fig 2: Configure SSH tunnel on Mac OS machine

When the SSH tunnel is created, you’ll see a little green dot beside the connection, like in the image below. This now means that a secure tunnel has been created between both steve and lenny.

Fig 3: Green dot shows the SSH tunnel is active

Enabling desktop sharing on lenny

This is easy. On lenny, in the settings application, go to sharing:

  • top RHS, slide the switch to show the arrow
  • click on Screen sharing Active
  • check allow connections to control the screen
  • enter a password (NB: only first 8 characters of the password are used!)
  • restrict access to lenny to only the networks you own or trust

Fig 4: configuring remote desktop access (VNC) on POP_OS

VNC Viewer on Steve

On steve, download the VNCViewer client from RealVNC (the inventors of the VNC protocol!). It works really nicely.

Enter the “Local bind address” IP address and port from fig 2 above to make a new connection.

Fig 5: VNC client configuration on Steve the Mac OS machine, using the “local bind address” of the SSH tunnel

Error: ‘Unknown authType 18’

Every time I tried to connect to lenny (and any Ubuntu machine in the past), I got ‘Unknown authType 18’ error message.

In the VNC Viewer client I tried allowing the connection encryption to be negotiated by the VNC server (Encryption: Let the server choose). It failed. I’ve tried a number of other parameters. It failed.


The solution to the above error message is to disable encryption on the VNC server.

To do this, go to lenny, and in the terminal type:

gsettings set org.gnome.Vino require-encryption false

This disables encryption on the VNC server. I still can’t understand why the parameter “let the server choose” does not work as disabling encryption should be the eventual outcome.

Once you explicitly disable encryption on the server, as above, VNC will then work.

But isn’t this insecure?

Since you are connecting to lenny the POP_OS machine through a secure SSH tunnel, the unencrypted VNC connection is no longer a concern.

This will give you secure, remote desktop access to the POP_OS machine. You will be able to use it as if you were sitting in front of it.

Don’t forget to turn it off when you are finished! 🙂

References   [ + ]

1. System 76 have short instructions:
2. A nice Youtube video explaining SSH:

Internet Freedom Festival 2018 – Introverts meetup


Date: Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Time: 14:00 – 15:00
Room: Patio Naranjos
Duration: 1 hour


(From the IFF Schedule) “This meetup brings together individuals that identify as introverts. Meetups are one hour informal events focused on allowing people to meet and greet.”
I’ve volunteered to lead the Internet Freedom Festival Introvert meetup at this years IFF.
This is for anyone who wants to give feedback about IFF, the community, and anything else you wish, silently, or without words.


To enable people who might be less inclined to take part in a group event to contribute their needs from IFF, thoughts and comments about IFF.


The format of this session is inspired by Caroline Jarrett’s (a wonderful user-centred design professional) experimental “silent session for introverts” at the UKGovCamp 2017.
  • Talking isn’t banned, but it is not encouraged for the first 40 minutes.
  • Discussion, in any language, is encouraged for the last 15-20 minutes.
  • Discussion can be about the topics, or introducing yourself to other people there.


it is important to make sure as many people as possible feel they can take part. I hope to have some collaborators who can help with the translations as necessary.

Please be comfortable writing in, speaking whichever language you feel most comfortable in.


The session will have a main topic, with some thought prompts. There is also space available for “other” and general questions.

Participants can contribute

  • their opinions, experiences, and anecdotes
  • opinions for good (or bad) ideas, tips, and results
  • anything other comment

What happens after the meetup

I will be sharing the outputs of the meetup with the IFF organisers in order to make IFF better and identify possibilities to improve.

Using Apple Magic mouse with Ubuntu sometimes causes unwanted behaviours

One of the main annoyances with my new Ubuntu machine is not so much the fault of Ubuntu, or the Dell hardware – but the lack of a decent pointing device. As much as I complained originally, I like my Apple Magic Mouse. My muscle memory has formed, ergonomically it’s (reasonably) comfortable.

So annoying!

The main thing that annoys me is the unwanted behaviours cause by using the Apple mouse with Ubuntu. The main annoyances  are:

  • when right-clicking, sometimes the mouse registers it as a middle click and the mouse pastes the clipboard content into the input field. This can be catastrophic!
  • when the intention is to right-click sometimes I end up “middle-clicking”. This has resulted in browser panes closing without my permission, causing me to loose all my work

Disable middle click

I was expecting to have to put up with this really annoying behaviour but there are fixes.

The simplest is the use the great Gnome Tweak Tool. This is an “extra” set of preferences apart from the built in Ubuntu “settings”. In there you’ll find keyboard and mouse settings. Here you can disable the middle button completely.

You’ll have to install it from the Ubuntu software store. This little screencast video shows how to do it.

A couple of clicks and I’m not going crazy any more! This has made a huge different to my usage of Ubuntu and my Apple Magic Mouse.


Can’t extract rar files on Ubuntu?

I’m trying to extract a RAR file (a type of compressed file) on my new Ubuntu machine. I use the built-in archive manager application and keep getting this error message:

screen shot showing the error message "an error occurred while exracting files. Parsing filters is unsupported".






Originally I thought it was a problem with the file (maybe corrupt), but after doing some DuckDuckGo’ing I found a simple cause: unrar (the programme to do the extracting) wasn’t installed!

The solution is to go to the commandline and do:

sudo apt-ger install unrar

a screenshot of my computer display showing the command to install unrar from the commandline





Now, its all working!

Useful Gnome extensions for UX professionals

As I wrote before, I’m conducting an experiment of working with only Open Source software in my day-to-day User Centred Design profession. One of the good things with OS X software was the abundance of useful, single use applications which helped in work.

Using Linux, this shouldn’t be impossible to achieve either.

The flavour of Linux I use is Ubuntu with GNOME. GNOME is for those unfamiliar similar to the OS desktop interface – how the interface looks and operates, but it much more powerful.

There is also the concept of extensions for GNOME – additions to the default interface which allows you to do one thing (think web browser extensions, or addons). Thankfully there are lots available. The list below is some of the most useful for UX professionals.

Screenshot Tool

It allows you to take screenshots with click of 1 button. You can autosave the whole active window/an area/or the whole desktop to a preferred location, and upload it to IMGUR.

It can be downloaded and installed via Gnome’s extension website.

Sound Chooser

This extension shows a list of sound output and input devices in the status menu below the volume slider. Various active ports like HDMI , Speakers etc. of the same device are also displayed so you can control what inputs and outputs are used for audio. Very useful when using an external microphone, video camera for recording, or when doing a presentation.

It can be downloaded and installed via Gnome’s extension website.

Easy Screen Cast

This allows you to make short video screencasts of your desktop and webcam. The video can be saved to different formats, quality.

It can be downloaded and installed via Gnome’s extension website.





Other extensions

I’ve also installed other extensions which I find useful – Touchpad Indicator (turns off/on touchpad when a mouse is plugged in), SomaFM Radio (allows you to listen to Internet broadcaster SomaFM), System Monitor (which shows graphs and stats on CPU, memory, disk usage).

There are some other useful extensions available at the GNOME extensions site.

Slack and government

Anyone working in, or following digital services in (any) government, is probably aware of the use of Slack 1) as an ephemeral instant messaging service by people working in digital services.

If they’re aware of that, then they’re also probably aware of the Freedom Of Information request recently submitted to the UK governments Cabinet Office, Government Digital Service.

And they’re probably also aware of the coverage on The Reg2)

Lots of government departments, all over the world, use Slack.

Slack has a lot of benefits, as mentioned in the Reg article –

It’s also a boon to those who need to work remotely or are in cross-departmental teams – both of which should be high on the government’s agenda.

The benefit of talking with colleagues in other government departments can mean the difference between things taking days and them taking weeks, or months. As a practicing user centred designer, its value can’t be measured.

Being able to ask the x-government community of hundreds of user centred designers for advice, or how to approach a difficult problem, and get the answer in almost real-time, is worth so much.

It also helps us forge important work relationships which help us make better services for the public.
While I am a great supporter of Slack as a communications tool – there are other options than Slack.

We should be using, like we recommend to government departments, open source software where possible.

There are a number of open source alternatives to Slack.

My personal view is we should be seriously looking at alternatives to Slack. From my knowledge of the space currently, Mattermost seems as the best alternative to Slack3) for a number of reasons.

It is used by large organisations and governments worldwide. It is an open source project which can be self-hosted, or hosted commercially.

My personal view is government should shape Mattermost to meet government users needs.

There are many benefits of using Mattermost4) – government would have access to the full source code, it could be self-hosted to provide improved privacy and security, it would be possible to make it legally compliant, extend it as necessary.

Mattermost would allow for federation, so different government department instances could be interconnected5) to allow that important cross-government community to be saved.

All of these “boring” but vitally important needs would then allow the full benefits of Slack-like communications to be realised:

  • dev/web-ops could get their “chatops”6) operations working (chatops is where devops staff manage web infrastructure through a webchat tool)
  • agile developers could get their Continuous Integration, Git software versioning, Kanban board7) progress piped into their development channels
  • agile teams could have their daily stand-ups with web-based video calls8)
  • and lots more9)

Being an open source project, if integration to a particular service was not available developers could develop the needed integrations. This work could then be contributed back to the Mattermost open-source community10) to be made available to the wider community.

I wold love to see government digital services, around the world setting up Mattermost instances and providing it as a Government As A Platform11) service for their internal civil servant, and contracting users.

Any thoughts?



References   [ + ]

3, 4.
7, 8, 9.