An exploration of the ethical principal of respect in design.

Part One: Critical Understanding

  1. Clarification

According to the Belmont Report (1979), “respect for persons” can be broken into two components. The first component is that people should be “treated as autonomous agents” (Belmont Report 1979) . An “autonomous agent” is someone who can think and act on their own accord (Belmont Report 1979). The second component is that those with little to no autonomy are entitled to protection. Someone who has not read the Belmont Report may think that “respect for persons” may simply mean to treat an individual with kindness and fairness. While that could be included in respecting someone, it could be clarified to the individual that in this context it means to keep in mind a subjects ability to think and act for themselves.

  1. Not Easy

It may be difficult to practice the ethical principle of respect for persons as it may be difficult to determine if someone is a completely autonomous agent. Mental disability, illness, or dealing with children are instances when an individual may have less autonomy and require more protection. It is up to the administrator of the research or test to decide if the subject is autonomous and what protection they would require which could lead to unethical outcomes if the autonomy and protection is misjudged. This check on autonomy should also be done periodically throughout the test as discussed in the Belmont Report. For instance, if you are doing usability testing with children and are granted permission for them to do tasks by their parents, it is still important that the children are not coerced into doing certain tasks and the parents should give permission for every new task administered in order to respect and protect the children at their level of autonomy.

Part Two: Application

  1. Research Example

In a usability test like the one in which we had users testing microwaves is a situation where the “respect for persons” principle is required to complete an ethical and beneficial test. If I conducted a test where users aged 7–25 had to use a utensil I invented to eat various foods, I would need to determine the level of autonomy of each individual and make sure to protect them from harm that may befall them from my tasks. For instance, if I had a 7 year old using my utensil and I asked them to eat peanut butter with it I would need to make sure to have their parents permission and insure they did not have a peanut allergy before administering the test as the child may not know to say no to a food they were allergic to. I would also need the child to utilize their autonomy and perform the task without coercion from me or their parents in order to protect them. Coercion could also alter results of a test making them inaccurate or false. For my older aged users (and all ages), I would need to make sure I explained the test fully to them, check for allergies, and make sure I equip them with every detail about the test so they are able to make a decision if they think it is safe for them to perform a task. By giving them detailed information on their tasks and not forcing them to do them I am respecting their autonomy and protecting them from possible harm.

  1. Design Example

If I were to design an app that allows someone to take pictures, edit them, and post them on the internet, I would need to add certain features to insure I follow the “respect for persons” principle and keep users safe. In order to determine the autonomy of an individual and make sure they are protected I could include features such as parental locks, passwords, and parental consent warnings. In an app where information can be shared over the internet, it would be important to protect children from posting (either accidentally or on purpose) without their parents consent. Having passwords would keep children with diminished autonomy protected and gives autonomy to their guardians in whether they wish to allow their child access or not. I would also include warnings that the app may need to access the person’s photos, camera, and microphone with options for them to confirm or deny these requests in order to protect the user’s privacy and give them full autonomy in their choice of what they want to share or allow access to. These app provisions work to help protect those with diminished autonomy from sharing media with the internet that could endanger them and protects the user’s privacy by respecting their autonomy and allowing them to choose what they wish to share or not.

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