Going the distance for people

Research at the Canadian Digital Service

Mithula Naik
The Service Gazette


The promise and power of design research is beginning to take hold in the Government of Canada. Extending far beyond sticky notes and hackathons, the value is in creating inclusive government services that work for people.

For design researchers focused on increasing public confidence and trust, this also means going the distance to promote research that’s conducted in a truly ethical manner. At the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), we believe that broad, sustainable change starts with applying the principles of respect, responsibility and honesty to the people we serve. When these practices are overlooked or underestimated, we risk losing the trust of the public, and also of our broader government colleagues looking to learn from us.

We’ve put together some practical guidance on how you can apply ethical research principles and go the distance for people:

Building ethics into planning

When we take the time to plan our research, we’re taking steps to efficiently identify and answer our research questions. Yet, throughout this process, how often do we consider how our plans could affect our participants?

Let’s look at CDS’ work of planning research for a project alongside the Department of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), as an example. Veterans are considered to be a vulnerable population. They experience a greater risk of health issues, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and trouble adjusting to civilian life. Conducting research with any group, especially vulnerable populations, demands a highly ethical approach.

Here, using an ethical approach would mean not burdening people suffering from PTSD with multiple questions in long-format interviews. Instead, we’d focus on asking a few, well-structured, relevant questions to sufficiently gather meaningful responses. It would also mean identifying our target audience and clarifying the significance of studying one user group over another; do we want to interview Second World War veterans or young veterans?

Being intentional about our recruitment process and deliberate about our questions, are two examples of how we might embed ethical principles into our research plans. They allow us to grow in our research while ensuring respect for our participants.

Pacing: going slow to get ahead

In a fast-paced work environment like ours, knowing when to slow down our process can help prevent costly missteps, which may negatively impact participants.

For instance, one of our product teams is working with the Canada Revenue Agency to help low-income Canadians access benefits by making it easier for them to file their taxes. To understand the barriers faced by low-income Canadians with limited mobility, particularly those who are housebound by physical or psychological disabilities, the team decided to interview participants in their homes.

To ensure that the team was well-prepared to conduct these interviews, and be respectful of each participant’s situation, the lead researcher scheduled mandatory training sessions for all team members. Training included guidance on note-taking and instructions for field research. Without this training, team members might risk upsetting participants by way of misconduct or simply exhibiting a lack of awareness in a new environment.

This preparation enables researchers to be open to little conversational detours, and allows participants to speak freely without feeling pressured for time. Considering participants’ comfort levels and adjusting the rhythm of research sessions also enables researchers to collect higher quality data.

This pace can be accelerated when the team is back in the office to begin prototyping and product development. Do keep in mind: if you want to move fast using quality research when you’re in the office, you have to go slow and be purposeful when you’re in the field.

Uplifting our partnerships

Our research, no matter how sophisticated, is only worthwhile if it’s being used. At CDS we do not own the services we help build and improve. For our research to fully inform the choices we make, we need to be sincere and attentive in our partnerships with other government departments — which actually provide services to Canadians.

On occasion, our partners have been cautious with the kind of design research they conduct. In some cases, they feel the risk of conducting research with certain populations outweighs the benefits of the findings. While it’s understandable for an organization to want to mitigate risks, we must also consider the risk of excluding the perspectives of vulnerable groups, like veterans or Canadians in low-income situations.

Striking a balance between the two is key. Careful inclusion is better than outright exclusion as vulnerable populations tend to depend on government services the most. Unfortunately, in the past these groups have been excluded from participating in research based on certain factors. The benefits of their participation are not only felt by the groups themselves, but by society in general.

CDS works hard to show our departmental partners how we can thoughtfully include these groups in our research. One of the ways we do this is to help build institutional research capacity by co-developing research guidance on consent, privacy, data security, and more. Another way is to create the necessary conditions to start researching in the field alongside us. This can include advocating for research at all organizational levels, providing training and helping partners share their field stories back to their organizations.

Beyond quick-fixes

Going the distance means attempting to go beyond personas and interview templates, to being intentional and persistent about creating an effective, ethical practice — for your research and your research participants. Intentional in how well we craft our process, and persistent in how far we push existing conditions.

Our ability to achieve this, or not, will influence the value of our work in designing government services, and likely — the future of our discipline in the public sector.


Mithula Naik is a lead user researcher and founding member at the Canadian Digital Service. She leads the research of citizen-facing services, guiding federal departments.



Mithula Naik
The Service Gazette

Head of Client Experience @Canadian Digital Service, Government of Canada #GCDigital