of the participants, it is crucial that
we consider the appropriate kind of
compensation for the time and attention
participants spend on research; this,
after all, is how we show respect. This
is especially important to consider
when working with populations
whose opinions and knowledge may
be systematically undervalued.
Researchers should work to ensure that
payment is commensurate with the
effort the researchers will need from the
participants, considering the specific
context of the participants, other
benefits, time required, and
the task involved.
We need to remember that
cognitive and emotional work
are labor. In particular, asking
participants to recount emotional
events or reflect deeply on activities
in which they may not have expertise
might take more effort than other
kinds of research tasks. In some cases,
changing the task to better support
the context may be the solution. For
instance, instead of conducting an
interview that forces a participant
to recount pain and trauma, having
them do a generative participatory
design task to help be part of the
solution may be a more positive and
empowering use of their time.
Another question to keep in
mind is: What is the most effective
way to notify the participants
regarding the benefits and risks of
their participation? Researchers
normally use consent forms as a way
to inform the participants, but for
some vulnerable populations (e.g.,
children), consent forms could be too
complicated for them to understand.
Thus, an assent form might be a better
option. In addition, the consent/
assent form is not just a procedural
product so that researchers can get
the IRB approval; it needs to be
informational. Researchers should
think deeply about the potential
impact of the study, drawing
from their understanding of the
context of their participants as
established by their relationship
with the community, and inform the
ACT OF RESEARCH:
Keeping in mind the inherent power
asymmetry in conducting research
is crucial while collecting data, even
after gaining participant consent.
Consider: Have you explored
all the ways in which the power
differentials in your project may
not work the way you think they do? K
Have you considered power in your
project through the lens of financial
vulnerability, race, gender, sexual
orientation, and so on? How about
the researcher-participant power
difference? How can you empower
research participants and decrease
One way to support the agency of
participants is to emphasize that the
study is voluntary and that they can
leave the study at any point. Consider
how you will handle payment should
they choose to drop out of the study.
Financial incentives can deepen
power asymmetries, and being
clear about how you will handle this
question can help make it easier for
participants to stop when they feel
Also consider: Are there ways to
reduce the information asymmetry
between you and your participants?
Can you provide context around
who and why information is being
collected from participants? For
example, you can film introduction
clips about the researchers for when
the study does not have any direct
researcher-participant contact. This
way, the data doesn’t just flow toward
the investigators, and participants
can have a better understanding of
how the information is being used and
Figure 1. Heuristics for research design with vulnerable populations: pre-research, during the act of research, and post-research.
Act of Research
Have you asked the vulnerable community what are their
needs or interestsrelated to the research?
What is your relationship with the community in terms of time
Is compensationfair and appropriate given the context of the
What does meaningful consent from the vulnerable party look
like? Are there additional steps necessary including people
beyond your research participants?
Have you thought through what power differentials in your
project exist, including getting perspective from the
community in question?
What data will you be collecting and what data might be
generated as a consequence of your research? How might this
data be potentially harmful to your participants?
How can you empower research participants in order to
decrease the researcher-participant power differential?
What is the most accessible method for presenting your
findings back to the community?
Is there a mechanism for explaining/representing your
positionality to the community you are working with?
How will you ensure that the dissemination of your results will
not compromise the privacy and safety of your community?
Heuristics for Research Design with Vulnerable Populations