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This page is intended for use by students and researchers in the University of Cambridge Schools of Technology and Physical Sciences whose research involves recruiting people from outside the research team to contribute to design work. It is part of a larger set of research guidance pages on work with human participants.


Collaborative design recruits a wider range of contributions to the design process. Collaborative design research often involves the creation and observation of novel design processes, intended to move beyond conventional technical roles. In an academic context, this may involve collaboration with researchers from a range of academic disciplines, who are regarded as members of the research team, and also collaboration with external collaborators.

Participatory design techniques aim to involve the end-users of technology in the development of that technology. Such research often focuses on categories of user who are disenfranchised by conventional organisational and market research approaches. These may include people from racial minorities, people who are economically disadvantaged, or people who live and work in places far away from centres of technical expertise.


In the case of collaborative design, will all contributions to the eventual design be recognised and rewarded appropriately? It is normal for every person participating in a collaboration to consider their own contribution as being more valuable than others perceive it to be. It is also a normal human failing to forget, or fail to acknowledge, the contributions to one's own success that have been made by others. It is sensible to anticipate these problems by agreeing in advance what kind of contribution is expected from each collaborator, what kind of benefits they expect to receive, and how these will be shared fairly. If the result of the collaboration is expected to have commercial value, this agreement should be recorded in a legal contract.

Research collaborations that extend across cultural boundaries, as in the case of most participatory design techniques, are especially likely to result in ethical problems. Many conventional approaches to legal contracts in the technology industry are design to protect the privilege of large businesses rather than poor individuals or social enterprises. If collaborations extend to people in other countries, possibly with different political systems or tacit social contracts, the challenges become extreme. A legal-anthropological research team has created a template agreement for cross-cultural partnerships that may be a useful starting point for projects of this kind.


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