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  • Last Updated:

January 5, 2021

NDAs and Informed Consent for User Research: When, Why, and How to Collect Participant Signatures

Getting the required legal documents signed can be a real pain. Here are the tools, templates, and tips to make forms easier.

Carrie Boyd

Non-disclosure agreements and informed consent forms—they aren’t the friendliest or most exciting of terms, are they? In fact, they can sound downright intimidating.

But when it comes to user research, these documents are key to protecting sensitive company information, maintaining an ethical research practice, and complying with GDPR guidelines. 

In this article, we’ll go over the whats, hows, and whys of NDAs and informed consent forms—what they are, when you need them, the tools to make signature collection easier, and templates to help you get started. 

What is an NDA?

Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), sometimes called confidentiality agreements or confidential disclosure agreements (CDAs) are legal documents that establish a confidential relationship between a company and the person signing the NDA. They can be used for many different things, like ensuring an employee doesn’t share company secrets after they’ve moved on or that investors don’t share sensitive information after a pitch. 

If you’re reading this, you’re probably using an NDA to make sure your research participants don’t share sensitive or confidential information they learn during a research session. Some companies require this whenever sensitive information is shared. It’s also possible that if your participant is sharing their own company’s sensitive information, they may require you to sign an NDA before the research session.

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What is an informed consent form?

Informed consent forms (ICFs) help to ensure that both you and your participants are on the same page about how you will use their data. They explain what data you will collect, why you need it, and that research participants can withdraw consent at any time. Informed consent forms are written in plain language that is easy for both you and the participant to understand. 

Here’s an example of an informed consent form for research, from Dr. David Travis

An informed consent form from userfocus.co

When do you need an NDA for user research?

There’s really just one big reason to have your research participants sign an NDA—to keep sensitive information secret. For example, if you’re researching a new product at a large enterprise company, it may not be prudent for anyone to know about your work before the product is publicly released. 

When do you need informed consent forms for user research?

Informed consent forms are absolutely necessary for researchers who need to comply with GDPR regulation. We wrote a detailed guide to GDPR, including informed consent forms, which can help you understand this topic in depth. To create a GDPR-compliant informed consent form, you must:

  • Gain informed consent for all data processing.
  • Allow the participant to opt-in, rather than forcing them to opt-out.
  • Make it clear that participants can revoke consent at any time.

Even if you don’t need to comply with GDPR, many researchers consider informed consent forms part of an ethical research process. 

Informed consent forms make it clear to participants how you’ll use their data and why you need access to it, which allows them to make an educated decision about whether or not they want to participate. It also helps them to understand what participating in research involves, like a recording of their session being shared with people who were not present for the research. 

When should I send out my NDA or informed consent form?

Ideally, you’ll have your participants sign an NDA or informed consent form (or both) before the actual research session. This way, you don’t have extra tasks to complete during the session, or have worry about a participant not signing the documents and pulling out of your research last minute. 

If you’re doing research with User Interviews, you can use our Document Signing add-on feature to allow participants to sign your documents before they are added to your interview calendar. We’ll send you a copy of the signed document before their session, so you can spend less time working about the logistics, and more time focusing on the research itself.

We also provide informed consent forms for those conducting research with their own customers through Research Hub. These opt-in forms are sent to all users as they sign up for your panel, as well as any users who apply for one of your studies if they have not provided consent. If you change your form, participants will need to opt-in again before participating in further research.

If you prefer to take care of signature collection on your own, you can send your forms to participants beforehand and ask them to bring a signed copy to the session. While some researchers have participants sign their consent forms in the beginning of the session itself, we advise against this since it doesn’t give participants time to fully understand and review the document. Sending forms ahead of time gives your participants time to review and become comfortable with the document they are signing and also saves precious research time. 

How do I get remote user research participants to sign NDAs or informed consent forms?

There are lots of ways to get your users to sign NDAs or informed consent forms before your research session. If your company requires NDAs and informed consent for more than just research sessions, it’s possible you already have access to a document signing service, so be sure to ask around! If you don't, here are some tools you can use to get your NDAs and informed consent forms signed.

User Interviews

No surprise here. We’re our own favorite way to streamline document signing and participant opt-in forms. We’ll add your documents directly to the research recruitment process, so you don’t have to worry about any of the logistics. User Interviews offers Document Signing for recruiting from our participant audience or yours and opt-in forms for recruiting from your own panel

DocuSign

DocuSign is a popular online document signing service with robust enterprise features. It has both monthly and annual plans for different use cases and team sizes. It offers support for over 43 languages if you’re conducting business internationally, and integrations to make DocuSign work with your workflow.

SignEasy

SignEasy is another popular online document signing service. It offers signing links that you can send to participants or even embed in your webpage to gather signatures quickly. You’ll need to upgrade to their highest plan for enterprise features. 

DocHub

DocHub allows users to not only sign documents, but also to edit and fill PDF documents. It’s integrated with Google, so for some users it may be easy to use directly from their Google Drive. DocHub has a better free plan than some of other services we mentioned, allowing anyone to gather 5 free signatures a month.

Google Forms

If you just need participants to sign an informed consent form before your study, you can consider collecting opt-ins through Google Forms. This simple and free form builder allows you to add text and checkboxes to explain data collection and allow participants to opt in to each action. 

How do I store my signed NDAs or informed consent forms?

Once you’ve gathered your NDAs or informed consent forms for research, you’ll need to store them in a secure and organized way that makes it possible to access them later. 

Remember that bit about participants being able to revoke their informed consent at any time? That means they can rescind it after the session as well. Per GDPR, you must offer your participants a way to ask for their data to be removed from your database, including the signed consent form.  To comply with that request, you’ll need to be able to quickly and efficiently locate the right form again.

If you needed a kick in the pants to get your research more organized, consider this your sign. Creating a standardized way to organize all your research data, not just documents, is key to maintaining your both sanity and compliance. 

Dr. David Travis of UserFocus recommends starting by cleaning up your naming conventions. Establish clear rules that everyone in your organization follows when naming research documents, like “Participant A - Pricing Usability Test - 12/22/20”. 

NDA templates for user research

You’ll likely want to consult with your legal team on the details, but this NDA template from PlaybookUX is a great jumping off point if you need an NDA for your research, but aren’t sure where to start.

Informed consent templates for user research

Here are a few informed consent templates to help you get started on your own.Remember that whichever template you choose, your ICF should be written in clear and unambiguous language (no jargon or legalese).

  1. This generic informed consent form example from Usability.gov will help you build a custom form for your own research. 
  1. This informed consent form template, also from Usability.gov, is a bit more specific—it covers the recording of a research session for future use. 
  1. Userfocus.co offers a detailed explanation of how to write a consent form, which is especially useful for those who need to comply with GDPR regulations. The article walks you through each version of the form that was tested, and why the final version was chosen. 

Collect NDA and informed consent signatures with User Interviews

There you have it! Everything you need to know to get started with NDAs and informed consent forms for research. Remember to allow your participants to review any documents before your session, write informed consent forms in plain language, and establish naming conventions when storing your documents.

Make collecting signatures easier with User Interviews. We’ll help you automate informed consent form collection when recruiting from your own panel (when you recruit from our participant pool, you don’t even need to sweat the ICFs–we’ll take care of permissions for you) and simplify the NDA process with our Document Signing add-on. 

Sign up for User Interviews today and get 3 free participants for your first research project.


Carrie Boyd

Content Creator

Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.

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