Ethical Empathy

Background Reading

February 2016

February was dominated by ethics.  Everybody understands ethics, don’t they?

We each have our own interpretation of ethics but like everything, our understanding is shaped by our internal and external influences, values and principles.

My understanding of good ethical behaviour was informed in the most part by the anti-animal testing ethos  of Anita Roddick and the Body Shop movement (I was an 80’s child after all, my pocket-money went on White Musk body lotion/cream/spray/balm etc).  Fast-forward twenty years (ahem, actually more like thirty-odd years but hey, who’s counting) and I’m re-immersed in a world of ethics, this time research ethics and thankfully no animals involved. Only humans.

And you don’t need ethics to just talk, do you? Humans aren’t at risk from semi-structured questions or focus group sessions. What harm can I do?  Surely I just need to be empathic, to be able to understand and share the feelings of another.

Empathy is an essential yes,  but there is so much more to it than that.  As researchers we are constantly exploring, probing, testing, interrogating and scrutinising.  And when the focus of our study, that microscopic glare, lands on a person or group of people it can have far-reaching, often unintended consequences. That’s why we have established ethical principles, practices and processes to adhere to. These vary across research discipline, across institutions and are again guided by our own implicit ethical assumptions and biases.

As designers we also have ethical principles, practices and processes inherent within the discipline but until recently, these were not necessarily a taught element of design pedagogy. I don’t remember any ethically focused lectures or seminars during my design undergraduate (though granted my memory is patchy at best).  Rather these values were nurtured through reflection and regular exposure to the much-feared design crit. There is nothing quite like the public defence of your work to focus you towards rigorous critical analysis and contextualisation.  Today students are more likely to receive specific training on ethics, across principles, practice and process alongside the crit, forcing them to consider the ethical implications of their work at a much earlier stage.

Addressing 10 principles of good design proposed by Dieter Rams in the 1970’s, Aaron Weyenberg (UX Lead at TED) has proposed a recent amendment, an 11th principle.

Ten Principles for Good Design:

  1. Good design is innovative.
  2. Good design makes a product useful.
  3. Good design is aesthetic.
  4. Good design makes a product understandable.
  5. Good design is unobtrusive.
  6. Good design is honest.
  7. Good design is long-lasting.
  8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
  9. Good design is environmentally friendly.
  10. Good design is as little design as possible.
  1. Good design is ethical. The product places the user’s interest at the center of its purpose. Any effort to influence the user’s agency or behavior is in the spirit of their own positive wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those around them.

While ethical practice can be understood as implicitly suggested across all 1o of Rams’ principles, I agree that it needs to be clearly articulated. It needs a voice.  And perhaps that’s our role as designers.  And as researchers.  We have a responsibility to ethical practices, processes and principles but more importantly, we have a responsibility to people.



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