We feel that design is inherently ethical.
For some years we, like many service designers, have argued that design by its very nature and approach takes place within a strong ethical context. We’ve ensured that what we do when undertaking design is ‘ethical’ and have internal processes in place to support and empower our co-design collaborators and design research targets.
We are primarily ‘public services’ designers. In that sense our work is always bound by the protocols and rules inherent in the public sector. But we feel we need to be clear in the articulation of what ethical means to us. The result is the development of, and sharing here, our ethical framework. This framework relates specifically to the ‘how’ of design research, and how one does design, as opposed to the current important discussions about ethics of the ‘what’ of design and how one judges the impacts of designs to be made.
Co-designing with Young People as a focus for articulating an ethical framework
The impetus for us documenting our existing views and practices in the form of a framework was borne out of a current piece of work. We are in the process of undertaking a project with key academic and public policy collaborators such as the University of Sydney and State government department NSW Health. In the project kick-off we were involved in an interesting conversation about how our work (in this case a project co-designing with young people under the age of 18) is different to “research” and relates to research structures such as formal ethics committees and other academic governance.
The result of these conversations is the development of the DMA Ethical Design Framework, which takes inspiration from our own processes; peers whose judgement and experience we trust; and related industries such as academic research which invests a lot of time in defining these things.
Due to the nature of the current project, and our desire to keep the framework focused, this iteration relates directly to co-designing with young people (ie. those under 18 years).
We have been guided in part in the articulation of this framework by the work of one of our key advisor/collaborators in this space Tim Moore who has always advised that the critical element of working with vulnerable and young people in particular is the sense of safety that needs to be created. We’ve always implicitly done this in practice and it doesn’t just apply to vulnerable and young people, it applies to everyone involved in co-design.
Shout out also to Penny Hagen and other Aotearoa New Zealand designers who have spent a great deal of time thinking (and publishing) about these issues.
Following is an abridged version of the framework which we hope will add to the ongoing discussion.
DMA Ethical Design Framework
Design is not research.
Design is exploring as part of a ‘making’ process rather than enquiring in order to purely learn.
As a result the traditional governance procedures for research (for example Ethics Committee Approval) are not generally required for the kind of co-design work that DMA undertakes.
This does not mean however that co-design does not take place within an ethical context. With an absence of a formal, industry-wide ethics guide for co-design, DMA has developed its own framework that draws on both the design and research domains.
As a guide to the difference between design and research, we use the definition developed by designer Penny Hagen:
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.
Definition of co-design with young people
This abridged version of the framework is tailored to describe co-design with young people (those under 18) specifically.
For DMA, co-design is defined as:
The process of deliberately engaging users of the system, deliverers of services and other experts, being led by experts such as designers, to actively understand, explore and ultimately change a system together.
In the case of young people, they are defined as users and experts (of their lived experience) in design projects that are focused on solutions for their age-range cohort. The act of co-design is guided collaboration in order to make, rather than working with ‘targets’ to inquire. For this reason co-design is quite different to research; the ethical considerations when it comes to young people still stand.
As a guide to the context within which design operates in practice and how that is theoretically similar to research with young people, we use Dr. Kathryn Daley’s work on researching with vulnerable people as a guide. Daley states:
Research is a way of improving the lives of the vulnerable as research informs policy and service provision. Research participants need to be protected, but as their right, they also need to be able to participate in research as a way of being heard on matters which affect them. [This article argues that] ethical review of research is so heavily focused on minimising risk that young people’s right to participate in discussion is often overlooked.
Our goal in designing with young people is to:
Ensure young people are engaged in the design process in a way that protects them as vulnerable individuals, whilst supporting them to be active participants in the development of solutions with them, for them.
Engagement Principles for Co-Designing with Young People
Our principles for engagement with young people in co-design processes are based on the findings of the Lifehack project in Aotearoa New Zealand. Lifehack was a systems-level intervention in youth mental health and wellbeing and provided a strong articulated principle approach.
With the guiding question “how do we ensure the co-design process provides a safe, supported environment for young co-designers?”, we follow these principles (and deliberately embed the related DMA behaviors and processes):
Autonomy – how does the participant maintain their freedom of choice, right to chose and independence when engaging in this intervention?
- Voluntary engagement in the process, not nominated participation.
- Ensuring freedom of choice at the start of the process but also in all individual design activities.
Nonmaleficence – causing no harm to others, above all doing no harm. What if things don’t go right – what are your responsibilities for the wellbeing of people involved with your project?
- Ensuring participants understand they are not ‘accountable or responsible’ for the design outcome.
- Check-in and debrief opportunities after all design interactions.
Beneficence – How does your intervention contribute to the wellbeing of the person or people you are serving?
- Ensuring all participants, regardless of how they present, are actively engaged in activities by providing a mix of activity structures to suit all.
- Showing direct line of sight between their input and the outcomes.
Justice – treating equals equally and unequals unequally but in proportion to their relevant differences.
- Respecting difference and having reflective practices that ensure this is catered for.
- Ensuring participants understand the concept of ‘lived experience’ and how there is no single answer to the design problem.
Fidelity – How do you intend to follow through with what you said you would? What happens if you don’t?
- Formal hand-over to clients that includes any requests from young people for action.
- Providing our contact as follow up for any queries after the activities have taken place.
Legal – What is the legislation that you need to be aware of? eg are you working with young people, how are you intending on keeping private information confidential?
- Following anonymisation and privacy principles for all inputs.
- Working within legislative boundaries for privacy working with vulnerable people in the States and Territories in which we operate.
- Being clear about disclosure responsibilities and reporting agencies in the jurisdictions in which we work
Safety – Key points of safety when working with a target group what things will keep them well and safe? How do you enable people to tool-up before engaging in the conversation? How much of your own experience do you intend on sharing, to what ends and why?
- Keep our relationship professional and driven by structured, planned activities.
- Running through all agendas, process and approaches as the start of the activity to ensure ability for young people to feel supported and safe.
- Have access to support contact details in case a participant expresses a support need outside of the project (e.g. health, mental health, bullying, abuse)
Design Research Processes to embed the Principles
The Framework is completed by five areas of specific application of these principles at a project or design research level. These areas are evolved from ‘Understanding Consent in Research Involving Children: the ethical issues. The Handbook for Human Research Ethics Committees and Researchers’. The areas take research ethics insights and apply them to the co-design process.
In these areas of application ALL young people under 18 are considered to be ‘vulnerable’. That is, each young person is afforded all protections regardless of how confidently they present themselves as a matter of course. For DMA ‘vulnerable’ means ‘being under 18’ – not the standard social policy definition of vulnerable in terms of socio-economic or interpersonal circumstances.
Area of Co-design Process Focus
(abridged from ‘Designing Research with Children: FAQs’)
- Approval. The processes DMA has in place to ensure approval for participation of young people has been done ethically and overtly.
- Engagement. The processes DMA has in place to ensure ‘assent and dissent’ are respected and supported once a process is underway.
- Context. The processes DMA has in place to ensure the participants are aware of the broader context of the co-design project.
- Relationships. The processes DMA has in place to ensure an unfair power balance or incentive does not exist between the designer and young person, including financial and interpersonal power.
- Data (access). The processes DMA has in place to ensure the young person’s data is protected.
In our full internal framework each of these five areas contains a scope, processes and examples.
There is certainly a growing amount of thinking and literature around this topic. And the key elements of our framework presented above are not meant to answer the larger question of whether design itself is ethical – they provide a cornerstone for our own activities in relation to those we co-design with.