18F designs our research to account for the The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (PRA), among other laws. This article summarizes what we’ve learned through conversations with GSA’s Privacy Office and GSA’s Office of General Counsel.
Disclaimer: This article is intended for internal use. It’s shared in the spirit of open source, to prompt conversations around design research as it relates to the law. GSA has no regulatory authority over any of the laws discussed in this article, so don’t just take our word for it.
Compensating research participants and participant agreements
See the Guide’s “Plan” page section: “Compensating research participants” for legal requirements. Ask participants for signed or verbal confirmation of informed consent: see the design research participant agreement. The agreement can be accessed in both English and Spanish. If you will be compensating participants, replace the section on compensation with details of the amount and method of payment, and indicate that they will be compensated regardless of how much of the session they complete.
The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995
The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) is a law governing how federal agencies collect information from the American public. We want to be good stewards of the public’s time, and not overwhelm them with unnecessary or duplicative requests for information. We also want to make sure the data we collect is accurate, helpful, and a good fit for its proposed use. In general, the PRA applies whenever you are requesting the same information from ten or more people over a 12-month period. Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reviews and approves Government collections of information from the public under the PRA.
Research methods and modes
In their Flexibilities under the Paperwork Reduction Act memo, OIRA says that (emphasis added) “OMB does not generally consider facts or opinions obtained through direct observation by an employee or agent of the sponsoring agency or through non-standardized oral communications in connection with such direct observations to be information under the PRA.”
18F UX designers generally comply with PRA by showing preference for qualitative research methods (such as semi-structured interviews and usability tests) and research modes that involve direct observation. Moreover, we often find that we reach saturation before speaking with ten or more people (though note that for structured information collections, a response of any kind counts towards the ten; even “no, thank you”). We work with our partner agency’s PRA desk officer whenever we want to collect structured information from ten or more people.
18F designs our intercepts with the PRA in mind. This OIRA memo states that “Feedback requests: […] an agency does not trigger the PRA’s requirements when it posts its email address or uses an application for brainstorming or idea generating on its website to enable the public to submit feedback”. Our intercepts don’t require PRA approval so long as they only ask for people’s contact information, such as their name, email address, mailing address, and phone number.
Our intercepts also generally do not ask people to disclose information about themselves as a consequence of their responding. For example, we wouldn’t say “Are you the parent of a 4th grader? We’d love your feedback on everykidinapark.gov,” because this is effectively a structured information collection (since anyone who responds is effectively saying “Yes, I’m the parent of a 4th grader”). To be on the safe side, our intercepts generally target either everyone or a specific individual.
Some tweet-length examples:
This article reflects our most current shared understanding between 18F, GSA’s Privacy Office, and GSA’s Office of General Counsel; however, this understanding might differ from the shared understanding at the agencies with which we partner. Whenever we have questions about actions that fall within their respective areas of legal interpretation and authority, we work with those people at our partner agencies.