Why designing ethically is important, and how to treat the people you are involving in research and design fairly and with respect.

When involving people in research and design it’s important to treat them fairly and with respect. Be conscious of and try to reduce any imbalance of power.

To treat participants fairly:

  • check that the research is meaningful and will make a difference — for example, understand what research already exists and build on that rather than covering the same ground
  • avoid wasting participants’ time by only conducting research that has purpose and value
  • make sure participants are clear on what you’re asking them to do and how you’ll use any data you gather
  • make sure you keep all data and personal information safe and secure, and dispose it in a timely manner

To treat participants with respect:

  • view participants as equals and/or experts in the topic you’re exploring
  • make sure you explore topics sensitively
  • be conscious of any emotional investment or vulnerabilities

To reduce power imbalance:

  • be conscious of how we, as facilitators from public sector organisations, are perceived — this includes the venue, the language used, and the activities we’re asking participants to take part in
  • make sure participants are clear that their involvement is voluntary and they can stop or withdraw at any time
  • work to build an understanding of the design process and empower people to be actively involved

Benefits of designing ethically

Designing ethically involves diligence, work and possibly a new way of approaching projects. But the rewards are high:

  1. Your new service is more likely to succeed because it will work for all users.
  2. It will help you follow disability and accessibility laws.
  3. It may generate goodwill from users for the new service — during the project and after.
  4. You can take pride in having created a human and humane service.
  5. The chances of poor publicity are much lower.
  6. You’ll reduce the risk of excluding, causing upset or harming the most vulnerable users.

Who is responsible for ethics in a project

Everyone on a project team is responsible for the ethical dimension of their own work.

The project manager should lead and review the ethics planning throughout the project and make sure everyone is aware of the ethical procedures.

Principles of designing ethically

  1. Ensure user research includes all people who are likely to use the service, and that the user research is used and shared. You should:
    • include all relevant user types in your research
    • spend time with your team to make sure your findings are used to meet the main objectives of the service or product
    • at the end of the project, share your findings with other people who are doing the same or similar work
  2. Support vulnerable participants, including people who need help to use services because of temporary or permanent physical, mental or cognitive impairment, injuries or emotional problems.

    For example:

    • think about different types of user with a disability, and about the range of their possible disabilities
    • consider users who are not likely to take part or who find it difficult and put steps in place to encourage them — for example, offer to help with costs like travel and child care
    • make sure the hours work for everyone, even if that means working before 9am or after 5pm
    • choose places which are easy for everyone to enter and use, and where it’s easy for everyone to hear
    • make sure all areas are as accessible to all as possible — not just the room where the research will take place
    • ask the venue about accessibility and, if you can, go there personally to check

    Read about helping people take part in research and design for more information.

  3. Get active permission from participants and make sure they understand their rights. To do this:

    • make sure the consent is understandable and appropriate to vulnerable people
    • tell participants how their personal data will be used by the project
    • tell participants there is no pressure to take part and they can stop at any point
    • tell participants if audio or visual recording may be involved and allow them to accept or decline
    • tell participants how their responses will be stored, used and destroyed

    As well as following ethical and professional principles this approach will make sure you’re abiding by the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules.

  4. Reduce the chance of anyone taking part being upset or harmed. Make sure that everyone, including your team, feels safe. To help make participants feel comfortable:

    • only ask questions that help you understand the context in which the service is used, underlining the fact that this research is relevant
    • create questions which are short and not intrusive
    • create questions which do not give false hopes of what the service might deliver
    • offer support after the interview if you think it’s necessary
  5. Keep personal information safe and secure so that, for example, you’re not in breach of the GDPR rules. To do this:

    • make sure your data does not include detail which allows anyone to identify individuals
    • store data safely and securely
    • dispose of physical material by shredding or secured recycling
    • delete electronic data when you say you will

    The Information Commissioner’s Office provides more help on information security.

The Government Social Research Unit provide a comprehensive guide on ethical assurance for social research.