A Contemplation on the Principle of Respect for Persons

As Pertaining to Usability Research and Human-Centered Design

Defining Respect and Dealing with Ambiguous Situations

Respect for persons is a principle in design and research that has a much more rigid definition than our intuitive sense of the notion of respect. The Belmont Report, or the authority on the principles of research, states that designers and researchers should respect any individual as autonomous and protect those with less autonomy.[1] This in turn requires a clear definition of autonomy and its implications. Defined simply, an autonomous entity is able to make conscious decisions in their own best interest and act according to those decisions without obstruction or coercion.[1] This brings into question the ways in which the person must learn of what is in their best interest and also the ways of determining whether the person has decreased autonomy.

More easily said than done, the accurate conveyance of information for informed consent is crucial in design and research settings. The designers or researchers must give the person’s decision the correct amount of attention without allowing their wishes to infringe upon others’ wishes. There are many ways in which the decision-making process can be hindered, and all precautions must be made to avoid this scenario. For instance, if the person’s opinion is discouraged or artificially limited for no good reason, whether before the decision is made or after, the designer/researcher is not giving the proper amount of respect to the user/participant.[1] This can happen when information about the circumstances is biased or difficult to consume, as in the case of many marketing campaigns, or when the user/participant’s decision is negated completely, as in the case of YouTube’s unsubscribing bug.[2][3]

A second source of dilemmas comes from the fact that designers and researchers are responsible for protecting those with “diminished autonomy,” or those incapable of fully acting in their own best interest, such as the mentally or physically ill, children, the elderly, or those with limited liberties.[1] However, this protection requires the designer or researcher to classify persons on an individual basis whether or not they are fully capable of expressing their best interest. In certain cases, disclosing too much information may invalidate the research or user testing and go against the researcher’s intentions. In these cases the researcher must therefore strike a balance between necessary forewarnings and withheld information. Designers and researchers must both be conscientious of when their decisions limit the decisions of the persons they serve.

Respect in Research: User Research of Commuting Patterns

An example where respect applies is in passive user research, such as observing commuters in a public environment. User researchers in this scenario must note and describe precisely and accurately the practices of persons around them in the chosen environment. These researchers must avoid disturbing the natural flow and interactions around them–as to avoid invalidating the data–whilst at the same time inform others that their actions are being recorded. The principle of Respect for Persons dictates that ample forewarning be given in a comprehensible format and that persons wishing not to participate not be restricted or inconvenienced into participating. A good example of this would be to conduct the research in a relatively small environment and place clear signs at the entrance to allow for ample warning and a fair chance for the person to decline entrance of the space. This ensures that the research conforms to the three components of proper informed consent: information, comprehension, and voluntariness.[1] However, herein lies the problem with the nature of informed consent; as The Belmont Report puts it so concisely, “research takes place precisely when a common understanding does not exist.”[1] An example of when following good principles can get out of hand is when distributing comprehensive, comprehensible information is difficult or potentially result-invalidating. For example, how does one go about ethically recording the user interactions of a social media website without causing the users to self monitor because they feel like they are being watched? The process requires a sense of vagueness in the user agreement. Applying this kind of ethical diligence is as difficult in design as is in research.

Respect in Design: Product Advertising

An instance when the principle of respect applies to a design situation is in designing product advertisements. Designers must consider the validity and format of the content and how strongly the advertisement may influence the user to determine whether user consent is properly informed. Because the nature of advertisements is proprietary, the advertiser must craft an argument that is both honest and self glorifying, both persuasive and noncoercive. The advertiser would also have a difficult time catering to those with diminished autonomy without some exploitation because the persons who protect consumers mainly deal with troubling voluntariness in informed consent. In a commercial aimed at kids, how far can the advertiser go before justifiable persuasion is overshadowed by undue influence? How clearly does information need to be spelled out for it to count as informative and comprehensible? One can argue that advertisers should not be overly persuasive when marketing to children as they are unduly impressionable. As a result, many advertisements remind kids to ask permission before–for example–going online or using a family member’s computer. Product advertisers must deal with a constant stream of these ethical questions.


The principle of respect must be exercised in both research and design. This is basically giving users and participants the benefit of the doubt and ensuring proper communication between both parties. This principle is part of the three core design and research principles released by The Belmont Report: Respect, Beneficence, and Justice.