The Importance of Humility in Design Research

Attending the Service Design Network SDN conference in Berlin last October, brought us two days of interactive learning, keynote presentations, and networking. We were particularly inspired by a few talks about the importance of humility in design practice. These talks sparked a few reflections within our team that we’d like to share here.

Coming into a project with the intention of doing good is sometimes not enough

Designers are typically educated as problem solvers, with this idea that designers can parachute into any problem and, with some design thinking, fix it, indicating change from the top-down. Design researchers are not exempt from this. This saviour mindset can result in a lack of consideration for the impact/consequence of the work we do, and this can be detrimental to the people we are trying to help. This being said, just because the context we step into can be sensitive and complex – or we are not sure we are the right person to do it- this does not mean we shouldn’t do it at all. Not doing any harm doesn’t mean doing nothing. We do have a seat at the table – if we are sure we’re invited- however we need to acknowledge the individuals who sit down with us, their social background and the environment they belong to, in order to serve them the best possible way. 

Inspired by talk by KA McKercher (Beyond Sticky Notes)

Our actions can expose people to different types of harm 

Our actions as design researchers can expose people to different types of harm, which can manifest in various ways, including physical, psychological, social, or even financial harm.

Starting by understanding the area impacted by our research – the individuals, the social fabric, the economy or the environment involved- allows us to be more specific when assessing the potential risks of harm. Mapping potential harm scenarios is a useful way of mitigating those risks. This requires a deep understanding of the context we operate in. Engaging with experts in these conversations can help to identify negative effects that might not be obvious to you alone/or your team. Ethical design research not only protects participants but also contributes to the overall credibility and impact of your research findings.

Inspired by talk by Dr. Pardis Shafafi and Giulia Bazoli’s (Designit studio)

Privilege can create power dynamics on the system we’re researching for

Privilege can manifest in various forms such as racial, gender, socioeconomic, or educational privilege. There exist diverse tools to plot our identities, the Wheel of privilege is one of them (see below). It is important to remember that the spectrum of privilege and power is never static, who we are and where we are in life will have an effect on this.

Being honest and upfront about our privilege can help us understand if we’re the right person for the job. Considering various identities present in our team is also a useful thing to do, some profiles might be the most suitable to create less of a gap between people; age, culture, gender, appearance, language, etc.. If you can personally relate to participants or stakeholders it not only makes it easier to put ourselves in their shoes, but it also makes them more comfortable with us, and minimise disruption.

Inspired by talk by Daniel Tuitt

Academic Wheel of Privilege

By Jeanne Renoult and Ed Louch