Rachel Knight

Service and Experience Designer at DNA

Strategic Advisor at Shift


"...a really rigid code of ethics wouldn’t fit every project!"

Raphael Roake: How do you approach ethics within your practice?
Rachel Knight: That’s a good question and something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. So in terms of some practices, like going out and interviewing people, there are formalities around it. We have consent forms for participants to sign to say that they are happy to participate and understand their rights, and can contact someone if they have any concerns about the research. It’s also about making sure that it’s a really good experience for the person that you’re talking to. Especially around sensitive topics, you have to be really careful and make sure you’re not causing any harm to that person at all.
Part of it as well is around compensation, which can be quite complicated. Sometimes when you’re doing work for government organisations, there can be a perception that they shouldn’t pay for people’s time in case it biases the research data or creates a conflict of interest. However the challenge is that you can rarely share the final research findings with those people either. In that way, you’re taking something from them, information, time and experiences, but there’s not necessarily an equal exchange. If that happens but you’re able to create design changes that make their lives better, you’ve given them something back. But when you can’t for whatever reason, it can sometimes feel like you’ve taken something and not given them anything in return. Ideally they always need to be compensated, with either money, information or something that shows appreciation for their time and input. It can be a small thing, but people really appreciate the opportunity to give their perspective, and for that
to be valued.

It’s quite a tricky thing and I’ve been doing a bunch of reading about it because I’d like to write my own moral code to work out how I want to operate moving forward.

RR: Cool, that’s very cool! Have you had any instances working, where the ethics have been really questionable? Or you might have had to swallow your ethics a little bit?
RK: Well… In the broader sense of ethics, it can be a balancing act when you move from the research stage where you find out about people’s needs to the opportunities stage where you start thinking about what the customer needs and also what the business needs. Finding something that helps achieve business goals while also meeting people’s needs is where you have to be really aware of ethics and making sure that what you’re creating will be really positive for both.
RR: In my personal experience working in the public and private sectors, I’ve faced some interesting ethical challenges, but not necessarily where I thought they would be. Around things like deadlines and time allocated to projects.
RK: That’s interesting to look at that through an ethical framework.
RR: Yeah! Because you are effectively using public money. I wonder where that line is where getting private businesses like DNA to do potentially public work for government, and whether that might be a more efficient way of going about it.
RK: Working from outside an organisation means we can bring a wider perspective to a problem and challenge internal assumptions, but there are some challenges around that. Yes we can sometimes be more efficient in some ways but it can be more difficult when it comes to implementing the solutions. The ideal is when your client feels like part of the team and can create momentum from inside the organisation you’re working with as well. There’s a lot of great people doing really good work internally in the public sector, but it’s not easy, so it’s great when we can help give it that push, to get things over the line.
RR: That’s an interesting one. Coming from a university structure at the moment, where there is total blue sky thinking all the time. Then moving to…
RK: The real world? [laughs]
RR: Yeah but not specifically government or otherwise, finding out that the most ideal solution is usually not the one that people will run with. I’ve found that really hard.
RK: I guess that depends on how you think about the ideal solution? Cool, yeah, blue sky thinking, but if it didn’t work for reasons A and B… you need to inspire people to do something different but it also needs to be realistic.
RR: Have you found that offering, maybe in terms of solutions or research outcomes, that incremental change is a more effective way of getting things to change? As opposed to radical change.
RK: Well a big change won’t seem like a big change if people have come on the journey with you and completely understand why you would do it that way. It’s a balance of inspiring, showing a vision and showing what could be possible but making sure that you know it could work within the current context. So for me, the ideal is what could actually be implemented.
RR: That’s kind of the theme that all these interviews are coming to… is that it’s all shades of grey.
RK: Yeah totally!
RR: Which is interesting when looking at writing a code of ethics for yourself, because all these situations are so different…?
RK: That a really rigid code of ethics wouldn’t fit every project! Totally, I thought about that recently. I was thinking, ‘if I did this project again, how I would do it differently?.’ But when you’re in a project you’re so busy. It’s not like you go through these nice neat stages, you’re often doing everything at once and things change all the time. So whatever framework you have, it needs to be able to work in that situation and be flexible enough to work within really
diverse contexts.
RR: I’ve also interviewed someone that said your moral compass is something that you learn early on and is taught to you by your parents. I was wondering whether you think that ethics are something that you can actually change later on?
RK: I think that there is a bit of an issue with thinking that ethics is something that is taught at a young age. Your personal moral compass totally is, I agree with that, but that’s not necessarily the same as ethics in my mind. The problem with a moral compass is that it’s based on your own worldview, which isn’t appropriate for working with people or communities with completely different cultural or contextual backgrounds and applying what you believe is ethical to situations that you may understand very little about. In some cultures it’s totally moral to do one thing and not in another. You just need to be very aware of what you’re doing and the impact it could have.