Informed consent to do ethical design research

September 24, 2010 at 6:13 pm 3 comments

Pic: Informed Consent [CM]
Around April 2010, there was an e-mail sent to the PhD Design List about if Designers should go through the IRB [Institutional Review Board or “Ethics Committee” in a University] process before engaging into a research. “‘I’ve heard that some think that we design researchers shouldn’t request that because we are looking at the interaction not at the human behavior.” Should we? Should we not? In a time where we are teaching our students to go out to the field and engage in systematic field research [acquiring qualitative research methods, normally coming from the Social Sciences] , to answer some interaction design questions [for service, architecture, information, product, graphic design] , it seems imminent that we talk about ethics to our students, at least, about the “informed consent”.

Informed consent is often viewed as the central piece of subjects’ protection. It’s main goal is to ensure that people understand what is to participate in the research and until which extent will they choose to. It is extremely important to let them know that they have the opportunity to decide freely to engage or not in the research. In the case of participant observation techniques, it is important that the researcher gets informed consent from the participants, as well as an authorization to disseminate the information in ways that are not endangering their integrity in any way. Anonymity is optional, sometimes individuals want to hide their identities. Sometimes, not.
Pic: Students G.Warner & N.Cristi making some visual data collection in the field

Some professional organizations in the US and Europe do talk about ethical practices in design. Nonetheless, related to the relation with the product but not with study subjects from a qualitative research phase that nurtures the design. That is, not specifically for the Design Research phase. We should start thinking that our students ask themselves what is their take on ethics, how do they inform the subjects about their participation, real research purpose, the anonymity of their participation, how do they disseminate the information and take responsibility on the data they raise. It is not like they are going to the field asking themselves these questions. We, teachers, need to make students aware of this.
Just as an example [from all of the Social Sciences and organizations], the AAA [American Anthropological Association] and SfAA [Society for Applied Anthropology] have a pretty formal document regarding ethical professional and academic practice. In this post [for the sake of time] I will just touch some important issues like the informed consent. The AAA CODE OF ETHICS document indicates: ‘Anthropological researchers should obtain in advance the informed consent of persons being studied, providing information, owning or controlling access to material being studied, or otherwise identified as having interests which might be impacted by the research… Informed consent, for the purposes of this code, does not necessarily imply or require a particular written or signed form. It is the quality of the consent, not the format, that is relevant‘.

This last point is quite important as it does not guarantee that research is completely ethical. As Sal Watt and Julie Scott Jones indicate ‘To an extent, most field research requires a more flexible or situational approach to ethics, and it is naive of any researcher to assume that an overt role, combined with a signed informed consent forms, means that research is fully ethical‘ [Watt & Jones 2010:123] This is absolutely true, yet the informed consent seems to be a good tool to teach inexperienced students engaging field research, to take ethics seriously and think about it as they go to the field. Ethics might modify the level of participation in a research. When talking about photography [several times students go to take pictures about a particular subject that they are interested in], something so related to design, we need to make students conscious about the privacy, disclosure and dissemination of them. Is it enough to blur faces? Considering we are functioning in a digital environment with access to all sorts of registration instruments [cameras, cell-phones, computers] , Walker et al. 2008 indicates: ‘What is needed, we argue is an approach to ethics that steps back from procedures and returns to principles then reconnect principles to methodologies. This has significant consequences for researchers because it returns the basis of trust to the area of professional judgment and to the actions of the researcher-in-action.’ So if designers, in their shift from a Craft to a Discipline [Dorst], we need to provide the basis for students to develop a professional judgment that lead them to good research procedures and ethical design practice.

2008 “Ethics and Team-based Qualitative Research”, In Handbook of Team-Based Qualitative Research, edited by Greg Guest and Kathleen M. MacQueen, Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.


Entry filed under: Design Anthropology, Ethics, Methods.

Is design one of the ways to avoid “Dutch Disease” in Latin America? Personal data tracking-self-management or paranoia?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marjory J Munson  |  October 2, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Students increasingly enter the world of academic research carrying with them a background of tabloid/social networking thinking. A thorough understanding and application of the ethical basis of inquiry is needed to counter this preconception and prevent the gradual erosion of academic research.

  • […] machines or inanimated artifacts).  We talked about the informed consent (which I explain better here) and other important things to consider when going to the field. […]

  • […] machines or inanimated artifacts).  We talked about the informed consent (which I explain better here) and other important things to consider when going to the field. […]


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contact + citing (CC license)

Constanza Miranda PhD(c) design.anthro
* Currently @ DILAB
* Ex.VR @ Stanford's Center for Design Research [DesignXLab]
* Ex.Instructor @ PUC Chile [Design+Engineering]
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Design for Social Innovation initiative by Constanza Miranda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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