Research Ethics and Wicked Problems

When working on wicked problems, what one does can directly and powerfully affect lives.  While this opportunity for impact initially drove me to AC4D and to work on wicked problems, I soon discovered the complicated ethical challenges of conducting research in the social space.

During classes at AC4D, we learned contextual and participatory research techniques and discussed the necessity of participant consent. However, the examples we discussed in class involved consumer products like toothbrushes or razors, not people in crisis.  As I began research on homelessness, I realized that I was not probing into someone’s life habits but into someone’s life.  Homelessness is not caused by any one thing but by several bad decisions or unhappy circumstances, and I asked people to tell me about these mistakes or unfortunate events.   Research forced me to walk a delicate line because the stories people told me were so personal.  Some people refused to answer my questions.   For those that answered, sometimes, I probed too far. Other times people opened up to me too much and told me things I didn’t know how to respond to.  A good researcher can lead a conversation toward information they want, but many times, I found myself just simply listening.  I felt like I constantly walked a fine line between what I was supposed to be doing as a researcher and what I felt like I should do as a compassionate human being.  At times, I felt more like a counselor and less like a researcher, giving out hugs instead of business cards.  Other times, I simply didn’t know how to respond and found my hands in my pockets awkwardly not knowing what to do or say.

Many professions have codes of conduct when dealing with people in vulnerable situations. Psychiatrists never make physical contact with a patient and never talk about themselves.  Social workers engage their clients only in the context of their job, not outside.  These professions establish clear boundaries between practitioner and client.   While conducting research over the last eight weeks, I’ve wondered what exactly those boundaries are for the designer. Are there situations where a designer should just walk away?  Is it okay for a designer to make physical contact with a client?  Is there an ethical responsibility to share information with authorities if law-breaking activity is talked about?  There must be a certain amount of trust between the designer and client, but how far does this trust extend?

These questions are important in any design research situation, but even more pertinent in the social sector, where the line can easily blur between researcher and empathetic human being.