An Ethical Framework: Explained

I wanted to create a framework that would do three things:

  1. Respect my process as a person who needs time to internalize, think, evaluate, step back, process.
  2. Balance my predisposition for navel gazing by creating toggles between zoom in and zoom out – so I can better evaluate and understand the contexts and conditions for what else might be true.
  3. Create conditions for accountability.

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Reflecting on my teams research project with Caritas of Austin, I thought of all the conversations we had around ethics. I’ll share several questions where we considered the ethical implications of our work, to illuminate how the framework aims to support future work process.

Could this process exploit people in vulnerable situations? 

We chose to focus our research around understanding how Caritas collaborates, internally, to deliver on client goals. This was a decision shaped, in part, by our unease around interviewing individuals experiencing homelessness. As designers green to the process, it didn’t feel right to approach people in such a vulnerable state with so little understanding behind why or how their input would be valuable.

Even though we were trying to do what was ‘ethically right,’ given our level of experience, it wasn’t until we received feedback from our peers and professors that we understood the blindspot we’d created. We needed to understand the experience of the people Caritas aims to serve to better understand the unique challenges they face, and how programs and personnel are designed to meet those. With this in mind, we returned to the research phase to conduct interviews with individuals experiencing homelessness.

What do we offer in exchange for their time?

Prior to this return ‘to the field’ we spoke with several professors and alum around how we might do this and asked for advice on whether to offer goods or money in exchange for their time. When people are in such a vulnerable position, are we really giving them the choice of opting out if we offer food or drink or money when they are in such a vulnerable position? We chose to not offer anything in exchange and instead carried some Gatorades in case there was an ask at the end – which was the case, more often than not.

After an afternoon spent walking along 7th and 6th Street, up and down Congress Avenue, we reflected on the people we’d spoken with – individuals we had approached for the fact they were alone, mostly. But, on reflection, who were also all white. We had unconsciously avoided people of color out of our own ‘right to comfort’, or comfort bias, limiting the valuable perspectives and experiences we had gathered. This has significant implications for our research. We spoke about what we could have done differently to help mitigate our unconscious bias and talked about how we might try tabling instead so we are also providing opt-in opportunity at the outset.

Reflecting on this experience and the conversations we had as a team, I went back to my framework to include, under Locate Self, that I articulate personal bias and assumptions. My belief is that honesty and transparency will help create the conditions for the culture of accountability I want around myself and within a workplace.

How do we manage opposing needs and whose needs do we privilege? 

Looking ahead to our next steps with Caritas, we’ve made some recommendations that, on their face, satisfy case manager and program managers goals to create more specialized roles for their case managers, to help alleviate their workload and distribute responsibility across several persons. We’ve recommended to Caritas that they create specialized roles to triage case management.

This is at odds with what we heard expressed by individuals experiencing homelessness. Many expressed a desire for one omniscient case manager who could help them with their primary goal. For most, but not all, that goal is housing stability. As we dig into what that triage of case management support might look like, it becomes important to also consider the experience of individuals on the receiving end whose lives are overwhelmed by the many decisions they are rendered powerless to make on their own. How can we create support systems that will meet the needs of both parties? How can we create opportunity for a more fluid exchange of power among all parties?


I’m grateful to have created something that is flexible and grounded. The function of the framework is that it will hold me accountable to the values I espouse and the principles I want to orient my actions around.

I’m still trying to work out why accountability feels so important and how to articulate it. Here’s a first try: If our design is principally concerned with social innovation, then we ought to proactively create accountability. Knowingly or not, we navigate ethics constantly. Perhaps allowing our frameworks to be in the world will help us create the conditions necessary for navigating ethics in conversation and navigating ethics in practice.

Final Ethical Framework