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Ethical Aspects of Service Design in Government: Master’s Thesis

The project with the restaurant patio permits, together with the Service Design in Government conference, inspired me to think about what is the role of ethics in design. I dedicated my master’s thesis to mapping the ethical aspects service designers face while working for the government.

  • Activities – writing up a case study on the restaurant patio project; interviewing designers from across Europe on the ethical issues they face in their work
  • Deliverables – An analysis of the ethical aspects of the restaurant patio project and an analysis of the interviews I conducted with European designers summed up into a list of the ethical aspects of service design in government.
  • Outcome – Full thesis is available online, as well as a blog summary.
  • Project duration – December 2016 – June 2017
  • Team – Jan Martinek as the supervisor, Laďka Z. Suchá as the opponent

The process

After taking part in the restaurant patio project, I started thinking about what is the designer’s role in the design process, and if they can – and should – stay neutral while designing. This line of questioning became the topic of my Master’s thesis, Ethical Aspects of Service Design in Design Practice. My goal was to sum up the ethical aspects of the restaurant patio project as a case study, and to base further research of ethics in service design in government on the case study. I focused on the government/public sector and left out the private sector on purpose, since I suspected the ethical aspects designers encounter would be completely different.

To write the case study, I interviewed the different stakeholders that participated in the project – city council members, the design team, the restaurant patio owners and the designers who participated in the workshop. I then laid out a basic timeline of the events in the project and the different perspectives of the stakeholders of these events. Using this analysis, I was able to identify several ethical aspects of the project.

Together with ethical aspects identified in literature review, these served as a basis for the interviews I conducted with six designers across Europe. I asked them to recall a project they recently worked on – any ethical aspects of their work they personally perceived, but also about communication in the projects and any limitations they might have experienced, since the case study showed these heavily influence how ethics plays out in a design project. I also asked the participants to compare ethics in the public and private sectors, if they had experience working with both.

The outcome

After finishing the interviews, I summed up the research into eight categories of ethical aspects designers encounter in public sector projects: stakeholder management, assumption & bias, research ethics & transparency, the designer’s vision and the degree to which they should intervene in the organisation, role of the designer and personal ethics, digitalisation, inclusion & representation and participatory design.

I also came back to the stakeholders at the end, asking them to reflect on the project and the views of other stakeholders.

The finished thing. Unfortunately, I have no fancy photos of the process, since I was either writing in the library or out talking to people.

One thing I learned…

Ethics is something we all have to face as designers. By interviewing designers from different countries, I learned that we are all trying to tackle the same problem, and have many similar experiences. Sharing them then becomes even more important. What can we learn from each other? How can we support each other? How can we inspire each other?