DS 123: Proceedings of the International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education (E&PDE 2023)

Year: 2023
Editor: Buck, Lyndon; Grierson, Hilary; Bohemia, Erik
Author: Kiernan, Louise Brigid; Mcmahon, Muireann
Series: E&PDE
Institution: University Limerick, Ireland
Section: Professional perspectives for design students in a pluralistic future
DOI number: 10.35199/EPDE.2023.4
ISBN: 978-1-912254-19-4


As designing with vulnerable users becomes more prevalent, we need to establish societal and policy guidelines to ensure that such practices adhere to ethical principles to protect both participant and researcher. Vulnerable participants include racial and ethnic minorities, people with additional physical or cognitive needs, elderly individuals, and children (Rios et al. 2016). Many research papers would advocate that design research should be conducted with end user groups to ensure that solutions developed meet the needs and expectations of those most impacted by the issues (Sanders and Stappers, 2008, Mulvale et al., 2019, Shore et al., 2018, Carroll et al. 2021). This approach, however, may not always be ethical or appropriate in design projects at undergraduate level. Along with many of the standard ethical considerations when conducting research with vulnerable groups (such as Person-First, respect, language and communication, presence of guardians, advocates, or carers etc.) (National Disability Authority, 2006), there are also several additional considerations when developing design solutions. Many design projects never reach fruition or may take several years to develop to a functional design. This is even more likely when projects are set within academic institutions involving student projects that are short-lived and not always focused on the implementation of final designs. Including vulnerable participants in design projects must be beneficial to participants beyond the goals of the project, otherwise alternative methods should be employed. This will allow for an elevated level of trust with participants to continue to engage in design research and testing. Many vulnerable groups may initially be very excited at the prospect of design solutions that can improve their quality of life. They may be very willing to engage in projects as research participants or as co-designers. However, there is a risk that these participants may invest in these projects with great expectations but end up with very little in return. A major ethical concern is that they may feel used and exploited and let down as projects are abandoned or fail to reach the marketplace or indeed reach the marketplace without addressing the original user needs. This paper explores several case studies of undergraduate product design projects where vulnerable participants have been involved in the design process at various stages and to varying degrees. A case study analysis follows a description of these projects and key findings are discussed. The discussion then unpacks key questions such as: when is it appropriate to involve participants? What are the most useful methods to work with participants? When are alternative methods of research and testing sufficient? How can expectations be managed? And what is the payback for people to participate? The paper concludes by proposing a guide for how and when to involve users as participants in the Undergraduate design process.

Keywords: Ethics in design, design education, ethical guidelines, vulnerable users, design research


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