What did you do?

You know, each week, I usually write according to the 8 Pillars of User Research. This week, there seems to be just one main thread, so I’d like to noodle on that for a bit. I know y’all don’t mind me mixing it up a little, so here goes :)

What are you thinking about?

This week (or actually, late last week which then fed into the week), Serena Lai, Ruth Ellison and I had chats about consent, which led to conversations about what research is, about power, and about safe spaces.

Late in the week, the Capability team got together to work on our Digital Trade Handbook. We divided and conquered on some of the content, which saw Gabby and I working together on ‘culture’, and our ‘ways of working’.

It’s hard to define culture — it is something we co-create every day. What we can do, is work together to decide on some of the values we want to embody as a team. You’ll find writing about this in just about every Digital Service type agency in the world. You might be familiar with GDS in the UK’s ‘Be bold.’ and ‘the unit of delivery is the team’. I personally have OneTeamGov’s Principles stuck on my office wall.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Consent

Our current consent form is an ‘interim’ form that we worked on back in April. We got sign off for it from our wonderful and helpful legal team, with a promise that they’d love to workshop it with us to make the language more user friendly. Capacity to organise that workshop has been low on my side of things, and so we’ve been using the same form for a while now, though automated somewhat by Anthony, as I posted about previously. I want to make it better, but it will take time. Prioritising what really needs to be done is tricky when you are a team of two part timers!

My learning there, is that sometimes, it becomes other people’s priorities, and really, research operations might just be a team sport too :)

So, the wonderful Serena heard my barriers, and decided to crack on as much as she could within those barriers (time and approvals). Kudos to her, she asked the hard questions — how much can we change before we need to seek approval? She changed the readability for the better without taking away any of the legal stuff, on both the consent form, and the information sheet, so huge kudos to her for taking on the work, and for not giving in. Her persistent eye on the people we are serving is definitely something to admire.

We still need to do that workshop, but the current state is a little better than it was. Many thanks Serena.

What is user research? What is co-design? What is stakeholder engagement?

The consent form question got interesting too because as a group, we need to create policies around when to use a consent form, and when it is not needed (because it is not research). It’s an interesting one because the question quickly becomes ‘when is it research? When is it an informal chat? When is it co-design? When is it stakeholder engagement?

For what it’s worth, I’ve personally arrived at the following opinions, loosely held:

  1. When we need to ask about when it is research, the underlying purpose of the question is actually about power, I think. Consent forms and standards and guidelines exist because there is a power imbalance that consent seeks to address.
  • Therefore, the question is not, ‘what is research’, but ‘where is the power here?’ It’s almost more tricky to answer than ‘what is research’. I’ve referenced Alba Villamil’s social inequality map before, so here are three others of interest. First, 18F’s presentation to the 2021 Government UX Summit by Ben Peterson and Julie Strothman (a good one because it addresses the particular challenges of government in equity centred design). They address equity centredness by firstly providing useful ways to workshop with researchers, the design team and stakeholders the particular frames of reference they are carrying into the work, and then outline a more co-created practice of doing the research and design, thereby sharing power more effectively, and creating ways of dealing with power imbalances that cannot be addressed within the scope of the research.
  • The second is Sarah Fathallah’s ‘The case for participatory methods in design research’, which provides the following 4 reasons participatory research can be a useful research method:

“To get information you wouldn’t get otherwise

To minimize discomfort and strain

To encourage participant engagement and well-being

To shift power dynamics”

  • Thirdly, this excellent paper on exactly the issues at hand, Co-design and implementation research: challenges and solutions for ethics committees by Felicity Goodyear-Smith, Claire Jackson & Trisha Greenhalgh. They cover consent, how we apply consent in co-design, and the barriers caused by ethics assessment processes that actually serve to diminish participants’ sense of their power in participatory and action research, and co-design. To my point, they state: “The reciprocity of co-creation serves to diminish participant risk.”. To Serena’s point that brought the whole question up in the first place, the formal, constrictive ethics process undermines trust within the co-design group, putting in place barriers that may have been possible to dismantle, if not for the formalised and tight arrangements ethics assessments place on us (for example, hard and fast questions, methods and ways of working that cannot be varied to meet everyone’s needs).

2. While we don’t have a hard and fast policy yet, I suspect that stakeholder engagement tends not to include a research plan as such, though it may include a project plan and aims. Stakeholder engagement can either be informal, (and generally therefore is characterised by no quotation of any participant’s words in any final output), or formal, with an implicit or explicit set of expectations — i.e. that the stakeholder will be kept informed and that the outcomes are co-created. In my very layman's terms, I often say that this type of work asks what people want, whereas user research observes what people need. Determining need is not generally arrived at by asking ‘what do you need’ — rather there is an application of the principles of qualitative research methodologies and methods to arrive at an answer. Finding the line in real life, is not so simple!

3. (good) co-design does come with consent — from all parties. In addition to consent, ‘models of care’, ways of working and guidelines are often a part of the beginning of co-design activities — setting out expectations each can have of the other, and how safe spaces can be created and maintained. The process is less extractive than traditional forms of research, rather it is introductive — with shared power, and a shared effort towards a final outcome. Consent here will be participatory too, with everyone retaining agency over their input throughout the process. Kelly Ann McKercher’s Model of Care is a good resource for exploring this further.

4. Co-design often does come with power imbalances, even in seemingly low risk activities, and I know absolutely that I do not have any hard and fast answers on how those can be noticed, made clear, and better yet (because it is my job), managed with regards to research governance. Much more to learn there for me, I think.

Resources on research ethics

This little round up by the ever wonderful sharing human being, Rob Whiting is a good start to digging deeper on research ethics:

Culture and the hidden privilege of vulnerability

So, alongside thinking about power in research and design, I did a lot of thinking about my own role in supporting both effective research governance, and also researchers and designers in dismantling power imbalances where we can. The universe doubled down on this later in the week — I mentioned that Gabby and I had been writing about culture — or more to the point, getting something started on putting together the sets of values that we’d like to embody (such as valuing an open and transparent government) and our ways of working that operationalise those values (such as weeknotes). We talked together about how one of the features of working in the open and transparently is the willingness to be vulnerable. You can see this in a lot of my blogs, but here especially above, where I effectively said, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t have the answers’. To be able to be vulnerable, I have to feel safe enough that my actions are not going to significantly cause me, or my friends or family harm. There’s so much privilege that I need to have to make this possible.

To me, this means that when we say we want to work in the open and transparently, we are also committing to creating an environment where it is safe enough for everyone to be open and transparent. To me, this means as a part of our work on culture, we have to look at what creates a safe environment, and why some people are always going to be safer than others. In my short time at DAWE, I’ve seen some spectacular examples of people exhibiting a sense of safety — talking openly about failure in front of very senior members of staff, admitting they don’t know, and admitting they’re struggling at various times. I’ve not really experienced that in such a persistent way and across the organisation before, probably not since my days managing a small company of 16 people who basically felt like family. I particularly rejoice whenever I hear our really senior executive acknowledge what’s just happened, and then respond with support and whatever is needed. Absolutely stellar work, bosses!

But just because the environment seems safe, doesn’t mean we ever rest on our laurels on that.

In my PhD studies, I look at inequality as it pertains to birth parents. Inequality makes some people less safe than others, and that’s why we need to look at it. In parents that manifests as precarious work, working to pay and conditions that are less than experience and qualifications would suggest, poor career and employment outcomes, and a widening gender pay gap (the ‘motherhood wage penalty’).

Creating safe spaces requires us to create equity in the workplace. That means being cognisant of, and taking action to rectify inequity. To explain, this is probably a picture you’ve seen before (such is it’s power and simplicity), by Angus Maguire.

So, our cultural values of working in the open and transparently, are quite complicated to operationalise! I’m interested to see how as a group, we bring together our thoughts as we develop our shared values and ways of working. Power, as we can see, is everywhere. It’s tricky, but the best thing we can do is talk about it, and work out how we bring to life the kind of work environment we want. Seeing people being vulnerable with each other may just be the best possible sign that things are where we want them to be.

Anything else?

In the same vein, Saturday morning saw me taking a walk in Hobart’s hills (again), listening to the OnBeing Project’s podcast with Krista Tippett. She interviewed the marvellous Resmaa Menakem and Robin DiAngelo talking about white fragility. It was powerful, uncomfortable and necessary to listen to. Given my week was all about noticing power and the role I play in upholding unequal structures, it was definitely worthwhile. Having previously found Resmaa and his book, My Grandmother’s Hands through the same podcast, it was really powerful to have him speak with a white activist on the topic of race.

In the same vein of ethics, consent and power, this coming Tuesday, Bri Norton and I will be giving a talk on research governance — with some more findings from the ResearchOps Community’s Research Repositories project. We’re doing that with Design Research Melbourne, a ‘sister’ community to the ResearchOps Community, run by Caylie Panuccio, Emily Murray and Shane Burford. The Design Research Community has been working in partnership with the ResearchOps Community since the very beginning, and it’s wonderful to just keep strengthening research + operations in Australia alongside them. If you want to join in, here’s the details for our Tuesday night after work talk. We’ll make the deck public after the talk, as we always do.

This week’s music to write to was Living Room Songs by Ólafur Arnalds. Perfect Sunday listening.

researcher, counter of things, PhD student, public servant…into user research, information architecture, ontology, data. Intensely optimistic.