When designers approach work with nonnegotiable beliefs, their ethical foundations can start to crumble.
Every field has them: those seemingly nonnegotiable beliefs that have been anointed by industry pioneers as truth. Within UX, this dogma has taken many forms. The fetishization of simplicity. The insistence on five users for usability testing. The strict adherence to the hexagons of design thinking. Passed down from generation to generation, these ideas guide (and constrict) our design practice, despite how little some have been substantiated.
And design dogma exists everywhere, even in places where we would least expect it.
Over the past couple of years, the UX industry has seen more and more mainstream conversations around issues like design equity and inclusion. This is a direct response to the dogma of Eurocentric, ableist, heteronormative, etc. design assumptions endemic to the industry. In isolation, this shift in practice is a cause for celebration, as it’s the outcome of tireless advocacy by designers who have traditionally been relegated to the margins of thought leadership.
Yet what worries me about this enthusiastic turn toward “ethical good” is how its practice can verge on dogma itself. And the reality is, when we’re dogmatic, regardless of how that manifests, our work’s ethical foundations crumble. Treating ethical best practices as law can be harmful to users and practitioners alike.
WHAT CAN ETHICAL DOGMATISM LOOK LIKE?
Five years ago, I was working with an organization that helped youth who were at risk of aging out of the public school system graduate from high school. As a researcher invested in equity, I was excited to use participatory methods like codesign, which at the time were becoming more popular in the education space. For this project, the codesign process included inviting youth to share their experiences about the education system and recommend new school policies and programs to better support other students in a similar situation. As with many codesign projects, the idea behind this one was to elevate youth’s ideas for interventions in a space that had been historically dominated by educators and policy analysts.
Because this was a codesign project, my goal was to implement as many best practices as I could to enable a workshop environment where youth felt safe to share their stories and cocreate solutions to the educational challenges they faced. I was almost rabid in my approach, trying to implement all the techniques and practices that I, as an equity researcher, had been trained to evangelize. I did everything in my power to be as inclusive and care-centric as possible while also trying to defy the power asymmetry that existed between youth and the education system that they were embedded in. For example, I:
- Used group-based activities so youth could feel validated by their stories and foster a stronger social network.
- Provided generous financial compensation for their insights.
- Used trauma-informed facilitation techniques and protocols to hold space for youth to share their oftentimes difficult experiences.
- Invited educators and school administrators to help prototype solutions and then built in time for youth to critique and testify to the inappropriateness of those solutions.
Coordinating this project was a heady experience because the initial outcomes were what we had set out to achieve. Youth reported feeling listened to, and all the participants came away with a list of practice and policy changes they could implement within schools.
It was a classic story of the triumphs of participatory methods. Until it wasn’t.
Now, when I think about that project, I always remember the words of theorist Sara Ahmed: “Inclusion can be read as a technology of governance . . . those who, in being included, are also willing to consent to the terms of inclusion.” One of the devastating outcomes of that project was that in encouraging these youths to participate in the codesign process, I exposed them to a set of implicit but harmful terms of inclusion. I created a space where youth felt comfortable enough to share their difficult school and home life, but sometimes that included stories of illegal behavior and even experiences of abuse. And because my client organization was in a state with strict mandatory reporting laws, my research team was forced to report those youths and their homes to child services. Our enthusiastic and unbridled approach to participatory methods forced a government agency into the lives of already vulnerable youth. Their inclusion into the design process potentially exposed them to years of surveillance, family separation, and other trauma.
Now, this is not a criticism about codesign as a method. As a researcher with more experience, I now recognize the missteps I made throughout that project that could have minimized the possibility of mandatory reporting. Instead, it was my dogmatic approach to a certain version of codesign, which didn’t respect the particular risks and nuance of the context I was in, that I want to surface. Yes, we want to generate a sense of rapport and trust among youth, but how are we also encouraging refusal? Yes, we want to compensate participants for their time, but how do we avoid soft coercion and demand effects? We need to stress-test these ethical best practices like any other.
HOW DO WE CHALLENGE DOGMATISM IN OUR WORK?
This project was an incredibly formative one for me as a design researcher because it forced me to confront the ways dogmatic thinking emerge, even in equity work, and the mindsets we need to develop to challenge it. Here are three ways we can begin to reframe how we relate to our design practice to avoid dogmatism:
- Ground our practice in place- and situated-knowledge: Instead of using discretion and situating best practices in the appropriate context, we over-index on the label of “best practice” and assume practices can be invoked in any circumstance. However, best practices are more like signposts than directions—they are meant to act as a guide toward understanding and nuance. It’s important, then, that we continue to exercise our ethic of imagination and experiment with our methods and designs.
- Identify our fear of being seen as wrong: In conversations about ethical best practices, there sometimes can be a deep fear of being wrong that hinders our courage to seek truth and challenge what is labeled as a best practice. Many of us doing equity and inclusion work can feel guilt for the privileges we have and shame for how our work has negatively impacted our users’ lives. The consequence of this is that, as designers, we rush to distance ourselves from practices that have been critiqued as harmful and cling to new canons to signal that we are “different from those other designers.” Rather than adopting those new practices with healthy wariness and care, we stay silent so as not to ruin our reputations as ethical designers. One way to counteract this gut reaction is to seek communities of practice where we can articulate our questions, unease, and disagreement.
- Orient oneself to an approach rather than subscribe to it: Designers who are dogmatic are usually eager to categorize and label themselves with buzzwords, and to do the same toward others. This categorization of us versus them can stem from the assumption that our beliefs are connected and that if someone practices something we disagree with then they are more likely to engage in other harmful practices by extension. What’s important to do in these cases, then, is to elevate the diversity of perspectives within particular labels while highlighting their common goal. This can be done by naming and tracing one’s intellectual influences as well as seeking the friction inherent in them. But it can also look like identifying the outcomes we seek (e.g., more access, fewer negative outcomes) that we, as designers, are moving toward regardless of the steps we take to get there.
Alba Villamil is an equity design researcher and partner at HmntyCntrd, an award-winning organization that’s committed to transforming the status quo of being human-centered through courses, community, and consulting.
This article first appeared https://www.fastcompany.com
Seeking to build and grow your brand using the force of consumer insight, strategic foresight, creative disruption and technology prowess? Talk to us at +971 50 6254340 or email@example.com or visit www.groupisd.com/story