Product Discovery

Product Discovery

Aug 10, 2023

Navigating Data Privacy in UX Research: Ensuring Compliance When Recording and Storing User Interviews



Rocio Chavez Gonzalez

About the author: Rocio Chavez Gonzalez serves as the Corporate Legal & Compliance Coordinator at a premier entertainment entity in Europe. Spearheading data privacy initiatives across multiple jurisdictions, Rocio integrates entertainment excellence with robust data protection protocols. Rocio holds a Master’s in Law and has over 15 years of practical experience in the legal field. (LinkedIn)

A guide through the labyrinth of data privacy in User Experience (UX) research. This comprehensive post will delve deeper into the legal and ethical intricacies UX researchers face when recording and storing user interviews.

Understanding Personal Data in UX Research

In the world of UX research, personal data extends beyond what we typically think of, like names and addresses. Audio and video recordings from user interviews are also considered personal data as they can help identify an individual. These may include recordings of Zoom calls, phone calls, or even in-person interviews.

UX research sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, delves into sensitive topics, such as health or financial data. Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) this type of data is considered 'special category data' and requires extra caution. Researchers must explicitly inform users why this information is necessary, ensure they obtain explicit consent, and implement additional measures to safeguard the data.

User Consent: An Informed Yes

Acquiring consent isn't just about asking, "Can I record this call?" but rather about ensuring the user is fully informed about the data processing that will occur as a result of their participation in the research.

Under GDPR, consent must be freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous. This means that researchers need to clearly explain the what, why, how long, and who of data processing. What data will be collected? Why is it being collected? How long will it be kept? Who will have access to it? How will it be protected?

While it's important to be comprehensive, UX researchers also face the challenge of not overloading users with information. Here are a few tips to navigate this fine balance:

  • Keep it simple: Use plain, clear language that your users can easily understand. Avoid legal jargon that might confuse participants rather than enlighten them.

  • Layer the information: Begin with a short, concise explanation about data use and then provide more detailed information for those who wish to know more.

  • Tailor your approach: Consider your audience and their likely level of understanding about data privacy. Tailor your explanation accordingly, providing more context and examples if necessary.

In addition to these details, it's important to make users aware of their rights, including the right to access, rectify, or erase their data - or withdraw consent at any time. It's also important to remind users that their participation is voluntary and that refusing to consent to data processing won't disadvantage them.

Asking for consent in UX research also includes informing users if there are plans to collect any special category data and why it's needed. Special categories of data, such as health or financial information, warrant extra protection under the GDPR, and users need to give explicit consent for their processing.

Ultimately, the goal is to make the process transparent and the user fully aware, promoting a sense of trust and honesty between the researcher and participant. Consent isn't just a regulatory requirement; it's an opportunity to build a respectful relationship with your users.

Data Minimization

Data minimization is a key principle of the GDPR that dictates that only necessary data should be collected and processed. In UX research, this principle is of the utmost importance. The challenge lies in finding the balance between gathering enough data to generate meaningful insights and respecting the privacy of the users by not collecting more data than needed.

Here are some practical tips for implementing data minimization in UX research:

  1. Clearly define your research objectives: Before the start of any research, it's crucial to clearly define your research objectives. Understanding what you want to achieve with the research will guide you in determining what data is necessary and what is not.

  2. Adopt a "need-to-know" approach: Only collect the information you need. For example, if demographic information is not relevant to your research goals, there's no need to collect it. Recordings themselves become need-to-know only if they are e.g. shared within the product team to build empathy.

  3. Limit collection of sensitive data: Avoid collecting sensitive or special category data unless absolutely necessary. If it is necessary, make sure to handle it with extra care and obtain explicit consent.

  4. Start recording strategically: A practical way to adhere to data minimization is to start the recording only after any initial chit-chat that could include unnecessary personal information. Similarly, if a user shares sensitive information not relevant to the research, pause the recording or edit out that part later.

Protecting Privacy through Anonymization and Pseudonymization

One of the ways to uphold privacy rights in UX research is through the process of anonymization, pseudonymization, and data sanitization. Anonymization involves the removal of all identifiable information, making it impossible to trace data back to an individual. This could mean removing names, specific addresses, and other identifiable data from the transcripts.

Pseudonymization, on the other hand, is the process of replacing identifiable data with pseudonyms or codes. The original identifiers are stored separately and securely, and there are strict controls on who can link the pseudonyms back to the individuals they relate to. This allows the researchers to work with the data without accessing the personal details unless necessary.

Sanitization introduces a further level of privacy protection, especially relevant when dealing with recorded interviews. This could involve removing video or audio from the collected data that could identify an individual or that contain personally identifiable information. While this approach could potentially lose some non-verbal cues in user research, it greatly reduces privacy risks.

By using these techniques, researchers can analyze user interviews without directly handling personal data, thus maintaining user privacy and ensuring compliance with data protection regulations. Combining these methods appropriately can create a robust privacy framework, allowing researchers to glean valuable insights while upholding participants' privacy rights.

Data Retention Policies: Balancing Research Needs and Privacy Rights

Deciding how long to retain data is a crucial aspect of data privacy compliance. According to GDPR, data should only be kept as long as necessary for its intended purpose. Holding onto data longer than needed not only violates the GDPR but also unnecessarily exposes users to potential data breaches.

A robust data retention policy takes into consideration the nature of the data, the purpose for which it is collected, and the duration for which it is needed. For instance, defining a set review period, say, six months after the conclusion of the research project, is a practical approach. During this period, data can be systematically reviewed, and any data no longer required can be securely deleted. This not only ensures compliance but also aids in managing storage resources efficiently.

In the context of long-term UX research projects, the data retention policy can be a bit complex. If older data collected for previous studies might be useful for future feature developments or improvements, it's essential to plan for this at the outset. For example, when obtaining consent, researchers should inform participants that their data may be used for future related research projects, specifying as clearly as possible what these might involve.

Additionally, to retain data for future research, it is recommended to anonymize or sanitize the data. This approach significantly reduces the risk associated with retaining data for longer periods, as the identity of participants is protected.

Moreover, it is crucial to periodically review the necessity of retaining older data in line with the principles of data minimization and storage limitation, even when consent for longer-term storage has been obtained. For instance, if older data has been kept for potential use in future research, but the product was discontinued, the data should be deleted.

However, long-term research projects must be treated cautiously. UX researchers should constantly reassess their data needs and take extra measures to safeguard user privacy. Regularly revisiting and updating your data retention policy can help balance the ongoing research needs against the privacy rights of participants. Remember, a robust and transparent data retention policy not only ensures legal compliance but also builds trust with your participants, which is invaluable for any research endeavor.

Third-Party Data Processors: Handling Data with Care

Privacy should be ingrained in the UX research process and tools. This involves using robust encryption methods for stored data, and restricting data access. All these steps uphold privacy by design and default principles, creating a more robust data protection framework.

UX researchers often utilize third-party data processors. Ensuring these entities are GDPR-compliant is crucial as the primary data handler remains responsible for their actions. Always vet potential service providers for their data protection measures and establish data processing agreements. These contracts should define the data handled, its protection level, and the processor's permissions.

Honoring user rights is another cornerstone of responsible UX research. Researchers should promptly accommodate requests for data erasure or portability. This approach requires a well-organized storage system where individual data can be located and manipulated as needed. Your third-party data processors should provide you with the tools for this.

Data Transfers Across Borders: Navigating Complex Legal Waters

Transferring data across borders adds another layer of complexity to data privacy. GDPR strictly regulates data transfers outside the EU to ensure protection. When UX researchers, their company, their interviewees, and their third-party data processors are in different countries, they need to ensure that the data is protected to an adequate standard. This task might involve mechanisms like relying on an adequacy decision from the European Commission, using Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs), or Binding Corporate Rules (BCRs).

For instance, if a European-based company conducts user research with participants in the U.S., storing the interview recordings on a U.S.-based server isn't enough. The company must ensure adequate data protection mechanisms, like SCCs.


In conclusion, respecting data privacy when recording and storing user interviews requires more than obtaining consent and anonymizing data. It involves understanding what constitutes personal data, ensuring data minimization, upholding user rights, defining appropriate data retention policies, and dealing responsibly with third-party processors and international data transfers. Adhering to these practices enables UX researchers to conduct their work ethically, respecting individual privacy rights while gleaning valuable insights.

Remember: privacy isn't a luxury—it's a right. As we continue to explore the fascinating world of data privacy in UX research, I invite you to reach out with any questions or topics you would like me to cover in future posts. Your inquiries and insights drive this conversation, ensuring we all learn and grow in our understanding of this critical aspect of our digital world.

Disclaimer: The information and perspectives provided in this article are for general informational purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice. Readers are advised to consult with a qualified attorney or data privacy professional for guidance specific to their individual circumstances. Neither the author nor the publisher assumes any responsibility for decisions or actions taken based on the information provided in this article.