Data Analysis in the Engineering Ethics Study: Case 1

The Smart Recipe Cart (SRC) team was one of the Senior Design Project (SDP) teams which we (researchers) observed. The SRC team was designing a tablet screen to attach to shopping carts that would suggest possible recipes based on items in the cart. The team broadly discussed about safety issues such as safe uses of batteries in their product, copyright issues such as sharing recipes with recipe providers, and security issues such as the theft or damage of the attached tablet screen. The SRC team also discussed a few issues concerning social implications of their product such as the possibility of changing users’ life style by depending on their product, the potential impacts of encouraging users to purchase more food than planned by suggesting various recipes and the possible effect on users and grocery stores.

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In the selected episode, one of the team members posed a question about their responsibility for the difference between food depicted in the suggested recipe and the actual food the user would produce. If the picture of food that accompanied the suggested recipe was attractive enough to tempt users to buy it, but the result was disappointing, would the team be ethically responsible for this outcome or not?

Here is the SRC team’s discussion segment about this issue.

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To analyze this conversation, we identified a few types of meaningful keywords and highlighted them in different color. We marked ethically salient keywords in red, and design product keywords in blue. We also added non-verbal expression in bold. See the below.blog-case1-discussion2

Then, we noticed that this team was addressing users as “you”, not as “users” not as “customers.” This is a unique behavior in engineering student teams because most of student teams addressed users, either “users” or “customers.” Thus, we highlighted keywords addressing users in purple.

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Finally, we added explanatory words to the conversation and completed an interpretive version of the discussion.

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Now, we studied relationship among keywords, interpretive meanings in the discussion, team members’ gestures or any non-verbal expressions such as laugh, the team’s particular habit or way of talking, and any other noticeable clue. Based on them, we could find a few characteristics in this discussion.

First, the SRC team seemed to take responsibility, or at least partly take responsibility, for the users’ possible disappointment. The picture of the food in the suggested recipe in their design product will most likely be a professionally prepared picture, and the users may not be able to make such a professional cuisine, and be disappointed. The team brought this issue by questioning, “Is it ethical that really, really looking good food there and have all the recipes and then sell it as a crappy food?” The team member also gestured as if offering something (see the picture below). Although they said that “It is truly not our problem” and shifted the responsibility to the recipe provider, saying “Whoever made the recipe, their fault that they put the picture that’s not true to the recipe,” this team showed that they were concerning this issue as a possible ethical problem related to their design product.

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Second, as mentioned above, the SRC team referred to the users with variations of the second-person pronoun “you.” This language was unique habit in this team, as all other engineering student teams we observed addressed users as “users,” “customers,” or using third-person pronouns like “him” or “they.” Phrases such as “how good a cook you are”, “After you make it, it doesn’t look the same”, and “If you keep trying, it will eventually look even better,” indicated that they were imagining themselves in users’ position while they discussed this matter. They discussed the responsibility issue as if they were giving advice to their friend, and even when they said, “It’s your fault,” it was said in friendly manner with laughing and teasing.

Third, the SRC team seemed to side with users rather than with the recipe providers who might become their business partners. In their conversations, they maintained a friendly manners when they talked about users, addressing them in the second person, however, the team demanded responsibility from the recipe providers in accusing manner, calling them “whoever made the recipe” and pointing out that it was the recipe providers who did make the unreliable picture, saying “the picture that’s not true to the recipe.” It is often expected that business partners including designers, manufacturers, and marketers take the same side, and the users or customers take the other side. In this case, however, the SRC team, who designed the product, seemed to be more in favor of users than potential business partners. We represented this relationship as a cultural model of the SRC team’s engineering ethics understanding.

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