Ethics in design research

Partner and Executive Director
Leah Cabrera-Fischer
Associate Strategy Director

As more organizations make commitments around sustainability, social impact, and products and policies that serve a greater good, we’re witnessing greater scrutiny on the impact that design is having on people’s lives and the planet. How do we ensure that our design research is conducted ethically, balancing the needs—and power—of both stakeholders and participants?

For our December 2020 Virtual Smart Salon event, we enlisted the voices of four experts operating in the private and public sectors. In our conversation, we explored how they consider, challenge, implement, and fine-tune ethical practices and principles in their design research.

Watch the entire session featuring (clockwise from the left) Smart Design hosts Richard Whitehall and Leah Cabrera-Fischer with Dr. Camilla Buchanan, Sara Cantor, Margaux Boyaval and Ovetta Sampson.

Our Panelists

Margaux Boyaval a UX Creative Director at Teva Pharmaceuticals—brings together teams to use design thinking in order to reframe, learn, create, and deliver impactful healthcare ecosystems.

Dr. Camilla Buchanan co-leads the UK Policy Lab: a multidisciplinary government team working to bring ethnography, systems thinking, futures, and design to policy development.

Sara Cantor Co-Founder and Executive Director at Greater Good Studio in Chicago—leads a team that creates programs and services that are innovative, intuitive, and impactful.

Ovetta Sampson Principal Creative Director at Microsoft, works with a team of engineers and designers to visualize a clear path to digital transformation that starts now and builds towards the future.

Here are some takeaways from the evening’s conversation

There is an untapped body of knowledge about ethical design

As human-centered design practitioners advance in their careers, they more deeply understand, adopt, and apply ethical design practices to their work. While we see more and more designers and researchers wanting to use their skills for good, optimistic intent alone is simply not enough to result in positive impact. Implementing ethical practices takes time and immense rigor, the latter of which, as Dr. Camilla Buchanan of UK Policy Lab puts it, is “a really, really good thing for design research.”

“I’ve definitely seen things over the years that just really made me wince,” she continues, “even though they were coming from well-intentioned design. So I think it’s good that we are maturing in terms of our research practices.” Dr. Buchanan laid out a few examples, including being transparent about how long they keep data for, who is processing it, where it’s stored, whether it’s being used for private or public use, and even in the acknowledgments given for a participant’s work.

“We see it in the nonprofit space just as much as in the government space,” agrees Sara Cantor, Co-Founder and Executive Director at Greater Good Studio, “There are so many designers now who are interested in giving back through their work, and I think that’s great. But the maturing is real and you cannot rush it. You cannot say, ‘okay, boom, now I know how to work with vulnerable groups’ and balance their needs with the needs of a client.”

Truly ethical design is proactive, not reactive

Human-centered design strives to have a positive impact. Some designers, however, believe the buck does not stop there. For design to be truly ethical, we must anticipate the possible harm that can come from our work and create products and services that proactively curtail negative impacts on individuals and communities.

“It used to be that we worried about the functionality of our designs, like whether a chair was sturdy enough. Now, we have to worry about their performance, design, and decision making, which is a whole different paradigm.” states Ovetta Sampson, Principal Design Director at Microsoft who works closely with ethics in AI technologies, “Because of that, I feel like designers have a whole different responsibility: we have to be a lot more proactive. We have to accept the responsibility of the outcomes of our designs in a way that in the past, we didn’t have to.”

Recalling her work with terminal cancer patients, Margaux Boyaval—UX Creative Director at Teva Pharmaceuticals—discussed the ethical fine line of proactively understanding the unintended consequences that might come from such a delicate research conversation.

“As we’re developing new therapies—therapies that may not ever see the light of day—we’re talking to terminally ill cancer patients that may be in the last months of their life. We cannot give them the impression that there’s something coming that could save them. So one of the most impactful ethical questions is, how do we ensure that we’re setting up the discussion in such a way that we’re not giving them false hope? Because they’re having this experience living with, dealing with, and managing cancer, but we’re not there to say ‘this is for you and it’s going to change your life’, we’re there to learn from them. So it’s a delicate balance.”

Ethical design research puts power in the hands of the participants

Fundamentally, the relationship of the design research participant and the sponsors funding that research is skewed. Sponsor organizations hold essentially all of the power: Decision-making power, structural power, organizational power, and in most cases, monetary power. But when they embark on a mission to hear and understand the voices of their users, they’re symbolically sharing a small portion of that power with their community.

Well-intentioned though each effort may be, the scales of power are still heavily tipped in favor of the organization. As design researchers, it’s our responsibility not only to collect vital, valuable information from oftentimes vulnerable individuals and make sure that their data is used and stored responsibly but also to ensure there are benefits on both sides, not just that of the sponsors. And when we look through the lens of ethics, it can often be a fine line to walk.

“We have to say what our users are telling us.” Cantor adds, explaining that clients sometimes feel, “‘I’m hearing from users because it’s the right thing to do, or because it’s cool.’ But actually, you’re hearing from users because you are sharing in decision making power, and decision making power is ultimately the most important kind as it relates to this project and what we design. And so our job is to advocate on behalf of users because they don’t often have that voice, if not for us.”

“Evolving ethics into product making may seem like a given, but it’s not.” agrees Sampson, “It has to be mindful. You have to engineer it. And so because of that, we have to redesign the way that we design products. “In AI, there is no such thing as informed consent. The power is in the hands of the creators, and we have to get it back. As a designer, it’s my job to balance it out with bringing in what it means to be human, changing the paradigm of individual and machine, and making it a human/machine cooperative relationship.”

“We need to really figure out, as designers,” she concludes, “how we can instill these policies and these ethical principles in our design and product making that ensure we are mindful about balancing power.”


When it comes to ethical design practices becoming an inherent practice of researchers and creators everywhere, the journey is really just beginning. But through the power of candid conversations in diverse forums—both professional and self-organized—and a fundamental passion for listening, learning, and sharing, together we can continue down the path toward proactively designing a more ethical future. The onus is on us, and we’re excited to take on the challenges ahead.

Jamie Munger, Strategy director
Yodai Yasunaga, Visual designer
Danny Dang, Visual design intern

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