Ethics in (social design and innovation) practice

Notes from the Ethics Surgey - Ethics Lab Design for Social Innovation Symposium Wellington, July 2016

Participant notes from the Ethics Surgery – Ethics Lab, Design for Social Innovation Symposium Wellington, July 2016

The conversation about ethics within the context of design, co-design, design research and social innovation has been bubbling away, and occasionally boiling over, for the last few years.The ethical questions and issues that are raised by applying design processes to social challenges and social change are significant and important. There is a general consensus across the people I work with in various parts of government and social design that we need to more formally develop our responses to these issues and increase the level of awareness of current practitioners and rigour in current practice.

The Ethics Lab at DSI was one recent effort to do this, as are our current efforts to kick start a “group” of institutions and practitioners prepared to support and resource an ongoing dialogue about ethics and quality of practice. Our conversations in Aotearoa are running in parallel to similar ones overseas, see for example the workshop at CHI last year Ethical Encounters in HCI Research in Complex and Sensitive Settings and the more recent ITCD workshop to develop a minimal set of ethical standards.

Questions about ethics in design research and the application of design for social challenges (particularly in the context of the public service) are really questions about the quality, safety and rigour of our practice. While there are many commonalities in the questions and challenges faced by practitioners overseas and much existing work upon which we can build, there are also particular and specific things about practicing in Aotearoa NZ that shape our version of “ethical and good” practice here.

Key works that could be part of an ethical framework - Ethics Lab, Design for Social Innovation Symposium, Wellington, July 2016

Key words that could be part of an ethical framework – Ethics Lab, Design for Social Innovation Symposium, Wellington, July 2016


There is a lot to unpack in a conversation about ethics and quality of practice. This post just captures some of the background issues and questions that could be explored in the conversation around ethics, and the things that have already been identified as useful steps forward in this space.

Increasingly government and the social sector are using co-design practices and approaches, merged with other things such as social labs and collective impact etc. There is significant potential for positive outcomes through this as it supports and enhances ways for people to be involved and participate in shaping the services, systems and policies that impact their lives. At the same time we also need to develop the tools and structures to support this in the most effective way and ensure appropriate engagement with questions of potential risk or harm, conflicts of interest, power and so on. This is particularly important as more teams within the social and public sector do this kind of work and as design approaches are taken up across health, community and social domains.

With the exception of Participatory Design, traditional design education (including design thinking) has not paid a great deal of attention to the relational or ethical aspects of design and working with people, and questions of relationships, power, decision making, reciprocity or responsibility can be left unexplored. Design education has also not traditionally included any indepth research training, with many contemporary design practitioners learning ‘on the job’.  At the same time designers are increasingly finding themselves leading the investigation of complex human behaviour within complex social settings that require a rigorous engagement with ethics. There is a perception in some cases that the up-front design research phase (often known as Discovery, Explore or Empathy) is different to traditional “research” – and typical approaches to ethics, and ethics committees in particular,  may be viewed as not relevant.

To consider it ‘not research’ is problematic, if it means we pay less attention to how we engage. If we are involving people then we need to engage ethically and safely – and many of the considerations and protocols (not to mention legalities) associated with standard research do apply. But it is true that the goals and context of design research – learning about the world in order to design new things into it, has some different (though complementary) goals and accountabilities to other forms of research. While both require a thorough engagement with ethics, traditional ethics committees may not necessarily be the right structures to support that in the case of design research and co-design.

Another dimension in this is the application of ‘agile’ or ‘lean’ approaches to design research which emphasise getting things to market to test them, or ‘getting out of the building’ and speaking to ‘potential customers’. While this bias towards action and users testing/input is a critical aspect of design practice, techniques and methods applicable to rapidly testing the value proposition commercial products and services may not be suited or appropriate for use in health and social settings. Areas such as mental health, personal health issues, or exploring the loss of a loved one for example require much more care and consideration.

Some of the questions that have been explored in kōrero to date, and that we’d like to more formally explore and capture in some upcoming Hui include:

  • What does it mean to do co-design within the context of Aotearoa?
  • How can we ethically negotiate the iterative process that is often at the heart of co-design research practice?
  • How does the action orientated nature of co-design research impact the shape and purpose of the research?
  • What constitutes rigour in the social design context?
  • What is the impact of applying tools that were often developed in commercial contexts into potentially sensitive settings such as parenting practices or health?
  • How do we ensure that practitioners have the necessary skills to engage ethically in a research space?
  • What is the obligation to participants in place-based work? How does the approach differ when design research teams live within the community?
  • How are Kaupapa Maori research models informing and leading co-design research practice?
  • How are Pacific research models being used in co-design research?
  • What can we take from other existing methodologies e.g., Participatory Action Research, Developmental Evaluation?

A discussion last year with senior practitioners from design, research and policy fields within the social and public sector identified the following key steps as needed:

  1. Building awareness of both design practitioners and public service commissioning agents about the need to foster discussion and awareness of ethics and embed it in their work practice and design process
  2. Developing a set of tools (e.g., principles or questions) that can help to guide practitioners in the design and delivery of projects, work and programmes
  3. Understanding and exploring what appropriate structures might be needed to support engagement about questions of ethics, quality and rigour in practice in spaces outside of where traditional ethics committees generally operate

As noted above the DSI Ethics Lab helped stoke some of this conversation, and we can share a follow up post on that soon. In the next couple of posts I will look at how different ethical questions play out at different points in the design process, as well as some ethical dilemas that can help to support rich debate about “ethics” within practice. Your thoughts and responses welcome.

There is a lot of excellent reading available on ethics and design (and related explorations in other fields), here are some starters (thanks to Hilary Boyd for her contribution to this list):

Codesigning Social Initiatives with people experiencing vulnerabilities

Beyond ethnography- Engagement and reciprocity as foundations for design research out here

Co-design and ethics committees

The Treaty of Waitangi and Research Ethics in Aotearoa

Ethics of quality improvement in healthcare

The ICTD Ethics workshop has also compiled some excellent reference resources worth exploring. 

The above summarises many conversations with, and efforts of different practitioners over the last couple of years, and I am looking forward to us building something concrete together out of this kōrero.


One Comment

  1. Great post, Penny! It’s tricky to pin down principles for judging what’s right or wrong in regards to co-design – but so important, because of the social challenges co-design is most useful for.

    I’ve found the IDEO Little Book of Design Research Ethics principals of Respect, Responsibility, and Honesty a good model to bear in mind to guide my interactions with research participants. I’m curious how your own themes, Quality, Safety and Rigour, align with, overlap and differ from Ideo’s. And do you, like me, find it challenging to apply such principles in a way that honestly benefits participants, and researchers, and the business alike?

    In response to your questions on designing within specific contexts, I can recommend Ruth Miriam’s thoughtful, ethically considered talk from UX Australia 2016, about community led co-design between indigenous communities and government.
    Finally, do you think it would be useful to have a preliminary checklist to help researchers engage ethically, breaking down the possible cultural and personal impact of decisions using such simple questions as “How might it benefit them? Who might it harm? How might we mitigate any damage we might cause? What’s the value exchange in this session? Am I aware and considerate of any cultural sensitivities?”

    I’m very much looking forward to your follow up posts, and also keen to continue the discussion about not just establishing goal posts, but ensuring they’re the correct ones.

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