In 2016 I began working on a research project called Ethics Kit to understand how we could augment existing design thinking processes with ethical considerations; to ensure that the changes we are making benefit all aspects of society. It became apparent that there was an opportunity to help researchers and their teams with Informed consent as both an artifact and a process.
Through promotion of best practice, removing administrative friction and enabling greater transparency and control for the participant, I believe we can not only improve the quality and consistency of informed consent across industries, but also enable new opportunities for how we establish trust with the people we’re learning from.
At the beginning of 2019, I asked Ben - a fantastic full stack engineer I worked with at Co-op Digital - to join me on this journey. This is how we started to define our culture and ways of working.
When you enter a new team it’s essential to kick things off on the right foot. People differ greatly in how they work and often have useful methods and tools which others might not be aware of. Additionally, the purpose, goals and values of the team are rarely discussed before entering a project, which results in misalignment - often resulting in tension when the pressure is on.
Below is the Content Process Model from the Swedish Defence College. It looks a bit like a walnut and - in a nutshell - it basically says you should spend an equally proportionate amount of time focussing on how you work, in relation to what you’re working on. Ola Moller wrote a quick (2 min read) article here if you want to know more about how this can affect group dynamics.
A big part of getting the team aligned on what you’re doing and how you’re doing it is to agree, clearly define and write down your purpose, goals and values alongside who will do what and how you will work together.
One great tool I use to help have these conversations ahead of time is the Team Canvas. It was developed by Alex Ivanov and Mitya Voloshchuk and comes in two flavours: Team Canvas and Team Canvas Basic.
So, naturally one of the first things I wanted to do when I asked Ben to work on this project with me was to define these things. In the spirit of our purpose, we wanted to be transparent about this by sharing it with you.
The one theme that we constantly come back to is that informed consent is really about building trust. When it’s done right it has multiple benefits:
- It lets the participant know what’s happening with the information they give you and why
- It demystifies your role and the organisations interest in them
- It gives them control over what information you capture and use
- This makes them feel more comfortable talking to you as a researcher
- Which in turn improves the quality of your relationship with them and what they share with you
It felt appropriate to encapsulate that as our purpose:
Empower research participants by enabling researchers to build greater trust through transparency in their work
Alongside having a purpose that we wanted to achieve with the product itself, we also found that we had a shared personal purpose for starting out on our own. We’ve both worked in a range of organisations and places, but always maintained a bootstrap / DIY entrepreneur spirit.
Work in a way that we want to work; on things that we want to work on
To us this means less talking and more doing. Working collaboratively and involving our customers and their customers in our design process. Making decisions based on evidence from primary and secondary research. Putting an emphasis on sustainable and careful growth. Finding ways to approach the design and development of new technologies in an ethical and responsible way. Looking beyond metrics and KPIs and understanding the human elements of informed consent.
From my initial research, I’d found broad range across how researchers were asking for consent and the challenges they faced in doing so. One of our key goals is this:
- To improve the quality and consistency of informed consent in research
- By this we mean not only, what information is shared and how we ask for it, but also what opportunities for transparency and control could be afforded to the participant in the process.
Another observation we had was that the tools and processes researchers used to manage their consent processes was spread over multiple applications and was cognitively intensive. To do it properly can involve multiple documents, making sure people have read and understood them, agreed to them and that a record of all of this had been kept.
Typically, this was done remotely using email, a survey platform and cloud storage, or in person using a paper form on the day and storing it physically or scanning it and storing it in the cloud.
Our next goal is this:
Make it so easy to manage informed consent in the best way so that people will
Going back to our secondary purpose of working in the way that we want to work, we were keen to reflect that in our goals also. We are building this product using tools and processes drawn from many schools of thought. Lean methodologies, ethical or responsible design practices, taking care to build it carefully and with data ethics and ownership at the forefront of our minds. As these things feel like emerging fields to us, another goal is to:
Explore, experiment and share new ways of working and running a business
Following on from this, there is often a misconception that profitable is somehow unethical. We believe that taking the time and care to set this company up and build the product in the right way will in fact make us more innovative and in turn become more profitable.
So, our final goal is:
It’s a commercial project, so make a profit
In his book The Post Truth Business, Sean Pillot de Chenecey opens with “I would defy anyone to say that trust isn’t a key issue of our time.” In a world of fake news and “deep fake” AI generated content is becoming ever more convincing, it’s an interesting time for businesses to ask for trust and confidence from their customers. Not only are we asking for that from you, but in turn you are also asking for that from your customers, which iuncludes the people you’re learning from. Growing suspicion around what organisations are doing with your information makes asking for and handling any kind of sensitive information challenging without first explaining exactly where, how and what it will be used for.
Honesty and openness
As a value, this must become the defacto standard. In the spirit of Less talking, more doing we aim to go beyond writing this on a wall in our office and actually show you what we mean by this. I hope this article is a good start.
Trust in each other
We’re humans too and it’s important to us that as founders and hopefully with our future employees that we are able to have confidence in each others abilities and trust in each other. I believe people work best when given a problem, support and space and the autonomy to solve it.
Be proactive and tenacious - pull your own weight!
In any business it’s good to proactively seek problems and propose solutions or strategies for how we address them. Startups can be chaotic and exciting. Knowing when to keep your head up and knowing when to get your head down without needing to be managed is essential!
Having said that, it also needs to be balanced against this:
No macho 100 hour
Amidst the chaos and agility required is also the need for good processes and proper planning. We want to grow this sustainably. That means being ultra productive when we are working, but being able to switch off when we need to spend time with the family or just go outside for a bit.
Sustainable over explosive growth
Move fast and break things has demonstably been proven to be terrible in the long term. We are fiercely ambitious and do not shy away from challenges. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set things up properly, or lean on outdated adages as an excuse. We favour long term growth over short term gains.
No egos - do what is best for the project
This isn’t about us. We’re committed to the problem we’re trying to solve and we believe that we can make a positive impact across the board in improving how consent is obtained and managed.
Holding ourselves to account
The virtues of writing something down and putting it up on the wall are many. Beyond alignment, or a shared understanding we are using these values and goals to guide us in the decisions we make when designing the business, the product and our relationships with our customers.
Putting something on a wall can also lead people to take them for granted; especially if people were not involved in the creation of those values and goals. This is central to the culture we are building at ConsentKit. Every time our team grows by 50% we need to revisit our team canvas and make sure it still holds true and reflects our shared experience as a team.
I’m very excited about where this is going and what we can achieve together in the long run. I hope you found this useful and I very much look forward to updating our Team Canvas again in the near future.
Thanks for reading!