A New Research Culture?

Last week, I posted about ways that websites could get implied, indirect, or direct consent from visitors, to ensure they had a consenting user base for user experience (UX) or technological experiments. The ways I posted were quite simple, being mostly based on straightforward modifications to existing strategies, and without changing much in the way the websites themselves treat research and data collection.

However, after finishing that post I started thinking about what websites would be like if their approach to research changed in a more fundamental way. This is probably (unfortunately) unrealistic at the moment, but its an approach that I would love to see realised.

Imagine if a social network, from its inception, stressed the communal nature of its design, allowing user input to guide its development from beta to release. Also, imagine if it emphasised the importance of research in development, making it clear to users that they could contribute to how the site works by taking part in studies on how different aspects of it worked.

A hypothetical “research area” on Facebook

For example, the settings area could have a dedicated tab to research allowances and settings. This area could contain a general list of questions that asked about the users preference towards taking part in different types of experiment. Then, a database containing only list of  User ID codes and a Yes/No entry for each research preference could be used to generate a list of anonymous yet consenting participants for each new study.

These questions remaining as a permanent settings area means that if someone changed their mind for any reason (such as wanting to be part of new research after hearing about the results of old research, or, on the contrary, removing their consent to one type of research in future if they took part in a study they weren’t keen on), updating their preferences would be as simple as changing a setting. This would mean people would be less likely to ignore a setting and forget about it, or click away and would be more likely to actually read the questions compared to them being in a pop-up type survey.

However, just having a list of participants isn’t enough to change how things work. The main focus would be on communicating about past, present and future research, and the meaningful findings that result from large-scale research.

A major way of doing this could be through videos. In the Facebook mockup above, the research settings page is led by a video concisely explaining what research in this context is, the main reasons why it is useful, and the benefits of taking part.

The site could also make sure that research papers resulting from studies are not stuck behind paywalls, but are instead free-to-access, perhaps in an archive hosted by the site. This would enable more technically-minded or interested people to read the exact findings. However, to avoid excluding people with less education or interest in reading long articles, a dedicated R&D video channel/ playlist would make sense: it could talk through the findings of past studies, and even the methodology and rationale behind them, in an accessible way. This could also be used as a place to explain the rationale behind changes to the site, and whether these changes were based on findings from users.

There is also the potential for a gamified operation in the community, such as research progress being rewarded in-site- for example, users could receive badges for sharing and commenting on research videos, or for being part of studies that had a measurable effect on the community. This could only be carried out in a limited way, as the rewards couldn’t be tangible enough to encourage people to push their own limits of informed consent. However, it could be useful for marking thoughtful participation.

Some of these ideas are labour-intensive, and they would require investments in science communication, staff, and resources. However, I think something like this could be the antidote to the paranoia often surrounding public research:  this strategy aims for as complete transparency and accessibility as possible, which is the best way of getting people to trust in research.

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