In May this year, a group of researchers gathered in San Jose, California, to attend a workshop on “Ethical Encounters in HCI”. HCI is human-computer interaction, an interdisciplinary field of research that covers a broad spectrum of activities, ranging from ethnographic research that aims to understand people to inform design, to lab-based studies that aim to develop and evaluate new technologies.
Why worry about ethics in HCI?
The field of human-computer interaction emerged in the 1980s, when personal computing was in its infancy. This was a time when computers sat on desktops, usually in the workplace. Initially, the aim of this nascent field of research was to create usable and efficient systems that supported people’s work activities. Much of the work in HCI at the time was conducted in laboratory settings or the workplace, with an emphasis on reducing errors and improving efficiency as people – or ‘users’ – learnt to perform tasks using computers.
Fastforward 30-plus years and computing has moved off the desktop and expanded into every realm of our lives. HCI, too, has expanded. No longer confined to the office or laboratory, HCI research has moved into the home and beyond, into settings where doing “ethical research” means more than getting your participants to sign a consent form (Bruckman, 2014). It is not unusual now for HCI researchers to conduct fieldwork in places like hospitals, schools, and residential care facilities, and to work closely with participants who might be considered vulnerable, such as people experiencing homelessness, chronic illness, or recent bereavement. Research in these settings can be rewarding and valuable, but also fraught with concerns about how to ensure the research is conducted in an ethical manner. In these settings, we can’t always predict and plan for every contingency, and there is not always a clear right or wrong way to proceed when researchers encounter a dilemma (Munteanu et al, 2015). In addition, HCI research might involve not only working closely with people to understand their lives, but also designing and implementing new technologies. We cannot always predict the impact these technologies will have on people’s lives and we have to be especially mindful of the possibility of unexpected negative effects when working in sensitive settings (Waycott et al, 2015). Social media, too, has highlighted the complexity of ethics in HCI and technology research; many researchers are now using publicly available social media posts as research data, sometimes to explore sensitive topics.
With these challenges in mind, we gathered in San Jose to discuss the common ethical issues people have faced when doing this research and to explore possible ways of addressing these issues in the future. The workshop, held as part of the International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2016), brought together HCI researchers working in sensitive and difficult settings who wanted to communally reflect on ethical issues they had encountered in their work.
Participants included a PhD student working on designing information systems for families of children in palliative care, researchers whose work aims to preserve the “voices from the Rwanda trial” in post-genocide Rwanda, and crisis informatics researchers who analysed Twitter posts to understand the role of social media during Hurricane Sandy. Prior to the workshop, participants submitted position papers describing their “ethical encounters”, available here: https://ethicalencountershci.wordpress.com/chi-2016/position-papers-chi-2016/
The workshop aimed to provide these researchers with an opportunity to discuss the challenges they have faced, and to brainstorm potential “solutions” and ideas that might help HCI researchers navigate ethical issues in the future. Challenges included:
- tensions between meeting institutional ethics review requirements and managing situational ethical issues that emerge during fieldwork;
- managing both participants’ and researchers’ vulnerability and wellbeing;
- the temporal nature of consent (should consent be a one-off procedure, or something that we revisit throughout the research process?);
- managing participant and stakeholder expectations about the technologies we design and introduce;
- deciding what happens at the end of the project, and managing expectations around this;
- working with stakeholders, gatekeepers, organizations, and being aware of inter-organizational politics;
- deciding who gets to participate and who doesn’t; and
- dealing with sensitive (yet public) data that can trigger difficult responses for researchers, participants, and others exposed to the research
These challenges can occur in any research that involves fieldwork in sensitive settings; but they can be exacerbated in HCI because researchers in this field may not have been trained in dealing with these issues, and because designing and introducing technology into these settings adds a layer of complexity to the research.
The workshop participants identified a number of ways of providing support to HCI researchers in the future. Suggestions included looking to other disciplines (e.g., anthropology, sociology) to see what lessons we can take from them; gathering together resources and cases from previous projects (e.g., building a database of consent forms and other documents); and developing a professional advisory group to provide guidance and to promote consideration of research ethics within the HCI community. Some of these suggestions are already being achieved through initiatives like AHRECS.
Bruckman, A. (2014). Research Ethics and HCI. In J. S. Olson and W. A. Kellogg (Eds). Ways of Knowing in HCI. Springer
Munteanu, C., Molyneaux, H., Moncur, W., Romero, M., O’Donnell, S., & Vines, J. (2015). Situational ethics: Re-thinking approaches to formal ethics requirements for human-computer interaction Proc. CHI 2015 (pp. 105-114): ACM Press.
Waycott, J., Wadley, G., Schutt, S., Stabolidis, A., & Lederman, R. (2015). The challenge of technology research in ‘sensitive HCI’. Paper presented at the OzCHI 2015, Melbourne, Australia.
Waycott, J., Munteanu, C., Davis, H., Thieme, A., Moncur, W., McNaney, R., . . . Branham, S. (2016). Ethical Encounters in Human-Computer Interaction. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
Jenny Waycott is a Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne. After completing her PhD at the Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University UK, Dr Waycott has worked on several projects in the fields of human-computer interaction and educational technology. Her research is broadly concerned with understanding the role technologies play in people’s learning, work, and social activities. Her recent work has focused on the design and use of social technologies for/with older adults, ethical issues in the design and use of new technologies in sensitive settings, creative uses of new technologies for social inclusion, and the use of social technologies in higher education. For more information see: http://www.jwaycott.com/
This post may be cited as:
Waycott J. (2016, 29 July) Technology research in sensitive settings: A workshop on ethical encounters in HCI’. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/technology-research-sensitive-settings-workshop-ethical-encounters-hci