The power of Do No Harm in design: Part two

Do No Harm is a concept often applied in healthcare, humanitarian, academic, or NGO worlds. While it may seem unconventional, when Do No Harm is applied to the field of design, it has significant potential and broad utility. So, what makes it such a valuable business consideration, and how can you put it into practice?

Dr. Pardis Shafafi
Giulia Bazoli

This is the second instalment of our two-part series adapted from Do No Harm framework for design, an Interaction 23 session developed and presented by Pardis Shafafi, Strategic Design Lead, and Giulia Bazoli, Lead User Experience Designer, at Designit. Just diving in? Check out part one before reading on.

As we discussed in part one, Do No Harm is about engaging with a situation actively and intentionally. It does not mean ‘do nothing’. If the design discipline is to evolve into a safer and more conscientious version of itself, we need to develop approaches from within to be able to effectively forecast, prevent, and respond to harm. A disciplinary culture shift is in order, and the Do No Harm framework provides a way towards achieving it.

This framework is a practical approach to having a guided dialogue and shared awareness around potential negative consequences on people, the environment, and society. It’s a tool that can be used across the entire design process, from how you define each project, conduct research, and develop an idea, all the way to how you implement a solution or launch a product.

The framework helps you find answers to questions like:

  • What will be the boundaries of the harm you will have to consider?
  • What is the role of the team and how can it be best equipped at preventing harm?
  • How can you identify risks beyond an individual and user-centric focus?
  • How can you move forward when you have a big list of risks but limited time?
  • How can you craft the most fitting measures to mitigate your prioritised risks and ensure those actions will be taken forward?

Now that you know the high level-process, let’s dive into its details.

The Do No Harm framework for design

Step 1: Define areas of impact

At the start of your project or initiative, define the areas that will be impacted by it. Discuss what user groups, communities, level of environment, and wider context you will need to consider throughout the work. These definitions are important to make because they act as boundaries that allow you to be specific in your focus while assessing risks and coming up with countermeasures later in the process.

Step 2: Self-reflect on your team

Among other things, consider what identities are present or lacking in the team, and what previous experience and capabilities the team members can build on. Bring potential bias and blind spots to the surface.

Step 3: Identify potential harm

At this point, the team can start identifying potential harm. To do that, we created ‘risk prompts’, which are questions to guide you in mapping risks by considering four recipients of harm: user, community, environment, and wider context.

The ‘risk prompts’ you use depend on whether you are at the start of addressing the challenge at hand or in the ideation, research, or implementation phase. The potential harm you need to consider will be different depending on where you are in the process.

For example, if you are in the research phase, a risk prompt could be, ‘Considering the topic and the research activity you are planning to run, what could be triggering for participants?’ Asking this question helps ensure you reduce harm by treating participants with care.

If you are in the ideation phase, a risk prompt could be, ‘What’s the worst-case scenario this idea could lead to?’. By answering these and other similar questions, you and your team will be pushed to consider short and long-term harm. You will assess each idea across multiple scenarios, mapping unintended consequences and ultimately shaping a more resilient solution.

Step 4: Analyse and prioritise

At this point, you and your team might be looking at a big list of risks. 

Considering your time and budget constraints, prioritise the risks so that you can focus on the most pressing ones. Map all the risks you’ve identified across two axes: one being the most critical from a social and environmental perspective, the other being the most likely to happen. At the end of this prioritisation step, you and your team will know what will be the most severe and certain risks that will require your attention.

Step 5: Define countermeasures to potential harm

Once you’ve identified a list of your prioritised risks, it’s time to establish measures that will mitigate potential harm. Measures can be of different nature and size depending on the challenge you are facing. To ensure ownership and accountability, measures should be allocated to specific members of the team who will take them forward and act upon them. Set routine follow-ups to monitor progress. 

What is the future of Do No Harm?

The goal of Do No Harm is to advocate not for perfection, but for greater responsibility and accountability for all design practitioners. When intent and impact are aligned, you have a better chance of reducing harm. And this is just the first step. 

Designers are at the vanguard of business and people, and as a designer, part of your power comes from your connectedness to the commercial space. But every individual is just one person in a huge ecosystem, and most often, designers do not possess all the decision-making power. So how do you persuade commercial actors to care about Do No Harm?

The good news is that there has never been a better time to talk about Do No Harm with commercial decision-makers. A Zeno Group study of 8,000 consumers found that customers are four to six times more likely to trust, buy, champion, and protect companies with a strong purpose over those with a weaker one. These consumers are increasingly downvoting with their wallets and the trend toward a prioritisation of ethics in consumer choices is only increasing.

Policy and law have followed suit, with increasing legislation around sustainability and new laws like the Norwegian Transparency Act passed last year. The act compels eligible companies to essentially ‘do no harm’ by assessing their entire supply chain and being transparent about potential harm to workers end-to-end. Now, companies are legally required to demonstrate that all employees, from salespeople to factory workers, are adequately paid and free from safety risks at work.

This law will affect thousands of big businesses and domino into supply chains around the world. Germany and Ireland are already looking at adopting similar acts, and the EU plans to roll out sustainability directives along the same lines.

On a broad scale, business ethics has moved from ‘nice to have’ to what is now a minimum standard of business engagement. You no longer have to convince commercial actors to ‘do the right thing’, or even just that the market need is growing increasingly in favour of brand ethics. Global policies around intentional and unforeseen harm are getting stronger both thematically and geographically.

The reality of Do No Harm is that to deal with complexity, you have to invest the appropriate time and effort. There is no simple checklist or hack. The concept of harm changes constantly, and while there are no shortcuts to mindset building, there are frameworks to help you get there. This framework is just one way to spur a shift into a Do No Harm mindset in design.

Ultimately, we want to bring a critical and reflected approach across the design process and our own role in projects and with clients. We want to be intentional with what we do.

And since you are here, we think you do, too. 

Want to explore what a Do No Harm framework would look like in your organisation? We'd love to help. Let’s talk.