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Products and services are not neutral; they produce what they are designed to do. The perspectives, assumptions, biases, and decisions of the people involved in designing can introduce or amplify harm. Understanding, acknowledging, and prioritizing equity can result in safer, more equitable access to government services and programs for all, particularly for those in marginalized groups.

As designers, we have a responsibility to uphold ethical practices and avoid actions that might bring harm to the people we work with and are designing for. These include:

  • Psychological or mental harm. Discussing traumatic events.
  • Loss of privacy. Intentionally or unintentionally sharing users’ personal information or feedback without their consent.
  • Loss of power or agency. Reducing someone’s autonomy. For example, hidden or unclear terms of agreement may lead to someone making a decision that puts them into harmful situations and/or limits their choices.
  • Safety or physical harm. Creating opportunities that might lead people to unsafe situations or environments.
  • Ecological harm. Increasing carbon footprint when designing new solutions.
  • Reinforcing power imbalances or inequity in systems. Design interventions impact the systems that products and services are embedded in which can reinforce or challenge inequity.

Without active reflection and resistance, it can be easy to unintentionally perpetuate structural inequities. In the context of 18F’s work, 18F only, equity pauses are helpful because they create intentional space for individuals and teams to think about potential equity issues as they are designing or building digital products. Equity pauses are just one tool you can use to increase trust and psychological safety and align on impact. Indicators that an equity pause might be particularly helpful include:

  • High pressure projects with tight timelines or with limited research backing up a rationale for the direction of work
  • Projects that engage the public and/or have many stakeholders involved
  • A highly opinionated stakeholder pushing the project in one direction
  • Team tension or discontentment
  • Questioning whether or not the work is having a meaningful impact
  • Focusing on budget, timeline, and resources without thinking through potential tradeoffs on what that means with regards to equity
  • When the lack of diversity on a team including, but not limited to gender, age, socio-economic status, culture, neuro-diversity and subject matter expertise either comes into question or impedes the progress of a project

You’ll find specific ethical practices to reduce harm embedded throughout our UX guide. They are centered on values and principles that guide how we work and how we want to show up in our work.

Ethics and roles

Ethics requires us to consider our role(s) in the impact we create with our work. We often have multiple roles over the course of our work in government. It's important to consider the potential impacts these roles have on the people our work serves.

You as a government employee

As a government employee, you are the face of the government and represent the history of actions and inaction by the government to different groups of the public. The people you interact with in your role may make assumptions about you based on their past experiences with the government. They may also not distinguish between their experiences with different federal agencies or between federal, state, or local government.

  • Learn and acknowledge the relationship between the federal government and the different groups. Understanding the history of a group and the challenges before engaging with them to avoid asking basic questions you can learn from background research. Consider partnering with a community organization to build trust and create more impact with your project.
  • Make it easy for people to participate by creating a safe space for people to ask questions and share concerns and experiences with the government. Ensure the space you create is accessible for everyone to participate and be included.
  • When corresponding with participants make sure it’s clear what part of the government you work for and be transparent about what you can and can’t do to help people directly or impact policy in the near term.

You as a designer and project team member

As a designer, you have power and privilege to influence and decide how someone experiences a product or service. And as a project team, you have the collective power to do so at scale. We should acknowledge that role and responsibility and ensure how we uphold and practice ethical principles. These should include building capacity, sharing power, and reducing harm. Consider who benefits, who decides, who’s missing, and who or what might be harmed by your research.

  • Build capacity

    • Identify biases you and your team have and discuss how that might impact your work
    • Expand the range of diverse perspectives that inform your research, from participation in design activities to decision making, e.g., how diverse are the observers in research interviews or your sources from desk research?
  • Share power

    • Understand the power difference between you and your research participants and move towards partnership
    • Ensure that people participate in your research willingly and understand how the research will be conducted and that they have control over their participation through informed consent. Be clear on how the information they share will be used and who will have access to it. Allow them to opt out.
    • Provide value to participants to recognize and honor their knowledge and experience
  • Reduce harm

    • Respect participants’ experience, values and needs as more important than achieving your research goals by mitigating the chances of potential harms to participants when moderating sensitive research sessions
    • Consider participant safety as a recruitment factor to avoid the chances of triggering a trauma response
    • Debriefing to intentionally make space for the team to process how they might be impacted by difficult research sessions so the team can be emotionally centered and know if/when they need a break

    You as a member of the public

    In addition to your roles at the office, your lived experiences inform your work. Your personal perspectives might give you valuable insights into the different communities you are a part of but also might lead to making more assumptions. Review the types of bias in research to consider how your background impacts the perspective you bring to the work.

    You may be on a project where your background or experience has overlap with the people using your product/service. For example, if you are redesigning a benefits program that you once participated in, you may find yourself in a dual role as a designer on a project team and as someone with lived experience similar to your research participants. It would be unethical to try and to translate a participant's experience based on your own but your dual role might give you a better sense of their context. This may also create added stress if colleagues lean on you to sit in both roles and be a translator of a participant's experience. Be clear with your colleagues about the line you want to walk with how much of your personal experience you are willing to bring into your role as a team member.

Further reading

These links do not imply endorsement but are shared here as other resources on this topic:

18F User Experience Guide

An official website of the GSA’s Technology Transformation Services

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