Ethical Sensitivities in Design Research

My takeaways from IDEO’s The Little Book of Design Research Ethics

I just finished reading The Little Book of Design Research Ethics published by IDEO. As researchers, ethics form an integral part of what we do — from outlining what ethics mean to a certain research project to following through with it at every stage of research and communicating them clearly to our participants and rest of the team. I do not know about you, but at different stages in my research, especially when I am relying heavily on technology, I always stop and think about ethics — privacy, information, data, where it is stored, how it is being stored, etc.

This Little Book has given me a lot of perspective on how I look at ethics in design research, particularly some of the more important things I should consider while conducting research. The book also contains some interesting anecdotes, some of which made me smile and some of which were an eye-opener. It made me reflect on my own experiences and how I have or have not upheld ethics both in my personal and professional life.

The three persistent and fundamental principles that this book explores are: 1. Respect; 2. Responsibility; and 3. Honesty. Below are some reflections around these three principles, from my experiences.

Respect. Our participants are humans and collaborators. We need to ask ourselves if we are respecting their time, their privacy, their cultural differences, their space — because if anything, they are more valuable to us than we are to them.

I was a Design Researcher for a project in which our participants were young mothers who often did not get parenting support from their partners. We scheduled our interviews for 45 minutes, very aware that mothers are busy and might have to step out of the interview to deal with things that required immediate attention. We made it clear that the interview would be recorded. However, we did have one parent who had to feed her infant mid-way. When we gently reminded her of the recording in progress, and asked her if she was still comfortable with it, she stepped away from her screen. While as researchers, we would hope that our job is done when we give participants a disclaimer in the beginning of the interview, it is important to acknowledge circumstances in which we might have to remind them once again. We tried our best to be respectful of her time, but may have failed at being more respectful of her privacy. Every research project is a learning!

Responsibility. We are responsible for our participants’ safety, the information they share with us privately and their data. They must be fully aware of what we would do with the data collected, and as researchers, we must safeguard whatever information we receive from them.

In one of the research studies that I conducted, I was required to record participants’ physiological data which included heart-rate and brain activity. I recorded brain activity using a wearable brain data measuring hardware that would be positioned on top of a participant’s head. During my pilot study, I realized that there were several concerns surrounding this. Participants were worried about health safety associated with wearing a headset that is recording their brain activity. To address this, I ensured that I wore the headset first, to show my participants it was safe. I also showed them what would potentially appear on the screen when they wear the headset. It removed fears and also introduced an element of excitement from seeing the brain waves on the screen when I spoke or meditated.

Honesty. Do my participants know the outcomes of this research and their contribution in it? If they do, then we are being honest researchers. If our participants are misled or leave with false impressions about the product or service, we have not done our best to keep them fully informed.

I conducted remote usability testing to validate some of the new features that we added to a mobile application. I was very excited about the product — about the difference it was going to create in the education space. When I spoke to some of the participants after the usability test, I said something on the lines of, “thank you for your participation. Your time and effort is very valuable to us in planning our next releases. We might reach out to you once again when we release our next version to know your thoughts.” Somehow, this was interpreted as “the product would be launched soon and you will be given free access to the app.” Perhaps I should have been more clear about what I said, and maybe also sent an email later, communicating about the next steps. After being subject to social media harassment by one of the participants (yes, you read that right!), I finally learned my lesson.

“At first glance, it appears that ethics and creativity have nothing in common; one is constrained and the other unbridled. And yet, ethics is the insider handshake to a world of unexpected delights and creative starting points. The secret to getting others to share their secrets is to conduct yourself with the utmost respect.” — Coe Leta Stafford, Design Director, IDEO Palo Alto

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