Confronting The Ethics of Your Design Choices

February 22, 2018 Owen Williams


How design thinking can be applied when the stakes are higher.

The typical Silicon Valley framework is to move fast and break things. But in Silicon Valley often the things we build are supposed to make our lives that much easier, faster, efficient and fun. What if you’re designing something where the stakes are higher, where it’s about basic safety and human need? How can we apply our iterative risk-taking approaches?

Move fast and break things, isn’t appropriate in disaster affected areas.

Natural disasters and population displacement are growing in their regularity and impact on communities around the world. Nearly 14 million people are at risk of extreme weather-related displacement every year and 65.6 million people were uprooted by conflict by the end of 2016.

At a workshop run by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, Pivotal Designer Aly Blenkin and Pivotal Product Manager Ellie Ereira explored applying Lean UX and human-centered design methods — typically used to build commercial products — towards building toilets for communities impacted by humanitarian crises. The success of the project led to another engagement, this time with the Red Cross around climate change resilience in Indonesia and Vanuatu, in particular high risk coastal communities.

Reflecting upon those projects, Blenkin and Ereira were struck by the many ethical questions that arose. The problems these non-governmental organizations (NGOs) face are daunting, especially because they’re beyond the frame of reference for most people. We’ve never personally experienced a humanitarian emergency ourselves, so it’s hard to imagine what it might be like, explained Blenkin.



Photo by Ellie Ereira.

“Define what you can change, and what you can’t”

Move fast and break things, isn’t appropriate in disaster affected areas.

You can’t break things without considering the impact of how it will impact someone’s life. Here is one of the first ethical conundrums Ereira and Blenkin faced: do you build as quickly as you can to meet the needs of the individuals, or start small and iterate, delaying the roll out of the solution until you’re more sure you’ve got it right, but potentially causing people to suffer for longer?

An important consideration while introducing these processes is being aware of the ways the private sector might be perceived by the international community as they’re trying to add new ideas or processes.

Refugee camps are the first-line of housing displaced populations and they are often built quickly. Unfortunately, this can mean designs for toilets, for example, may not make sense for the population. Toilets may be avoided in a camp because they aren’t built in a way that considers the difference in people’s cultures, needs, and sanitation preferences — along with safety issues that prevent people from using them.

Ereira shared with me that a person from one of the NGOs asked during one of these workshops, “how much research is enough,” which is another way to say, “how long until I can build the toilets?”

This is an important ethical consideration because you might be slowing down relief getting to the people who need it by trying to fix a problem — but using agile iteration alongside the process of delivering relief means you don’t have to choose. And the Humanitarian Innovation Fund is doing just that. Their teams build and respond to the immediate onset of the emergency while iterating on a separate track alongside it, separately, testing and building on ideas that could be deployed later in the process and thereby avoiding delay of relief.

Graphic from Aly Blenkin.

Combining these rapid iteration processes with ethical considerations adds additional layers of complexity: what are the impacts of the decisions a designer in this position makes and how can any unwanted consequences of that change be mitigated?

Engaging with the NGOs who are already on the ground — and getting their buy-in — is a sure-fire way to get a reality check and quickly learn many assumptions have been tested in the past, saving time in the exploration process. They’re able to quickly help define the parameters of what can and can’t be changed and what the associated risks might be.

But an important consideration while introducing these processes is being aware of the ways the private sector might be perceived by the international community as they’re trying to add new ideas or processes. The people on the ground have been working hard, often for their entire lives, and these ideas can imply their practices are irrelevant, or that the ideas being explored are “better.” We need to forge closer ties with experts so that we work together and seek complementarities.


“It’s about more than just translation”

Most projects will hit the ground, hire a translator to ‘solve’ the language barrier, and get to work without thinking about that process deeply, and the impact it has on the solution.

Blenkin and Ereira assumed the same at first, but realized early on this would cause misalignment. “There’s so much nuance beyond just words that are missed if the person conducting the interview isn’t familiar with the local customs,” said Ereira .

A key part of gaining useful insight was finding a person on the ground that’s a part of the community…

If you’re talking about floods or cyclones in people’s communities, understanding the nuances are crucial: the people asking questions need to be able to understand when to stop, or if someone is saying something just to get out of answering the question directly because they’re uncomfortable.

Blenkin shared with me, “there’s never a point where you can feel like you understand the culture enough to be comfortable creating a solution, but it’s crucial to grasp the impact of your design choices. This is why co-design and co-facilitation is so important. We want to bring other perspectives into the design process so that we can avoid designing something that doesn’t actually solve a problem or make the problem worse.”

A key part of gaining useful insight was finding a person on the ground that’s a part of the community, who can translate and deeply empathize with those affected, as well as building a multi-disciplinary team from all backgrounds before going in and starting.

Photo by Aly Blenkin.

One person the pair worked with, Disti, a facilitator in Semarang, Indonesia, was a great voice for the community. She helped translate those subtleties, bridging the gaps, and helping the team understand what would otherwise be lost in translation.

Having a person like this available is particularly important because the people being interviewed are in a serious state of need, or have suffered trauma recently, so they may be unable to handle intimate questions or may need additional help beyond your own skills. It also helps shift the power away from the designer and gives ownership to the local team that will be building and maintaining the project.

“As designers, we need to be aware of our responsibilities, but also our limitations,” said Blenkin, who believes that it’s important to get training to help in these types of situations.“We need to be aware of when it’s important to step back, and let someone with the right skills and expertise to take over.”

By finding key people on the ground to mediate and be a voice for the community, the nuances of language, non-verbal cues, and local customs are able to be considered. This adds immense value and avoids leading to the wrong assumption based on what the team thinks would be an improvement.


“Your initial reactions might be wrong”

The biases that come from power and cultural differences are an important concern and even easier to miss. As a designer, it’s easy to walk into a project and assume you’re able to just solve any problem by iterating on it. While that might work most of the time in the digital world, it gets more complicated when you’re solving an issue that impacts someone’s most basic needs.

George Aye, the co-founder, and director of innovation at Greater Good Studio, describes the challenges of this well:

“For all the talk about being human-centered, one very human factor often gets overlooked — a basic understanding of how power operates in relationships between people. This lack of understanding by design students and design teachers results in wasted funding, poorly prioritized projects, and broken promises to the very communities that are being served.”

To ensure that biases — background, culture, habits, and preferences — are considered when looking for a solution, the team relied on those community representatives on the ground, along with regular, honest feedback from all sides.

Photo by Aly Blenkin.

Ethnographic research lays the foundation for all of this work. Jan Chipchase, a thought leader in ethnographic research says that, to be ethical it’s all about applying a mindset: empathy, humility and open-mindedness.”

Blenkin highlighted this well when she told me that, “We shouldn’t assume we, as designers, can solve this alone, but only through collaboration and ultimately giving the community a sense of ownership so that the project gets a life of its own beyond just when it’s first installed.”

A real-world manifestation of this issue was presented at The Humanitarian Innovation Fund led workshop, which assessed the issues of scaling up a refugee camp.

During the group’s explorations of the use of toilets at refugee camps, they were confronted with the question as to whether or not lights should be used. Due to their biases and privilege, almost everyone assumed a light is important as a way to get people to use the toilets, but the opposite is true: In some places, electrical lighting on the outside of toilet blocks means people gather there en-masse at night because those are the only electrical lights. Those massive gatherings, and in some areas, the violence that goes with them, makes women and children feel unsafe about using them.

In that vein, it’s important to consciously stop and check that you’re leaving your biases at the door on a regular basis. Ereria told me that, “There are real issues and risks when privileged people try to do ‘good’ in the world. It sounds obvious to say that no one should think of themselves as the savior, but you should try and become more aware of the unconscious framing you have in this situation.”

By being humble, open-minded and willing to adapt, like Chipchase suggests, a designer is able to change their approaches, and ensure the solution is fit for purpose by seeing beyond their own view of the world.


Embrace ambiguity and uncertainty

These problems require designers to think at a different scale than they’re used to. When tackling complex social issues, you must think about the solution at different scale — and the ramifications that might arise from implementing those solutions.

“When thinking about different scales of problems like this, it can feel paralysing. But we think that designers are uniquely placed to embrace that discomfort and unpack the issues, while improving their own practice,” said Blenkin.

Photo by Jeser Bröring.

Working on real-world issues like these can provide a reality check for all of a designer’s work: bringing the ethical implications and social impact of digital design on the end user to the forefront of the process, as it did for Aly and Ellie.

Aly and Ellie gave more details on their work for the Red Cross, and other humanitarian projects at the Interaction 18 conference in Lyon recently. You can watch the talk, Humans, Heat and Hygiene, here for free.



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