Can human-centered design thinking get consent education right?

29 September 2022 4 min. read
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Shannon Viall is a Business Designer at ThinkPlace, a strategic design consultancy. Based on her current research into consent education, Viall outlines how a design-led, human-centred approach can help education developers and schools with improving the way sexual consent education is delivered.

As I watched a young man get a milkshake smeared across his face in an attempt to explain sexual consent, I was – like the rest of the country – absolutely baffled.

The now infamous Milkshake video was supposed to help young people navigate the already confusing areas of sex and relationships. With ambiguous beverage euphemisms and a voice reminiscent of an 80’s newsreader, the video instead became the prototype for ‘what not to do’.

Shannon Viall, Business Designer, ThinkPlace

Seeing the backlash play out as a designer, I couldn’t help but wonder how the idea made it through the research stage. Where was the consideration for the audience voice? Where was the nuance of empathy? What and whose behaviour was being targeted?

Adding fuel to the fire of questions was the context in which the video was released. Two months prior, student activist Chanel Contos created an online poll which uncovered 6,700 testimonies of sexual assault from Australian students. That poll soon became a petition, which has since been instrumental in the Australian government’s decision in February to mandate consent education across all schools by 2023.

We’ve now seen what can happen when new materials are designed without valuing the lived experience of users. The milkshake video was deemed harmful, removed from the curriculum, and branded a costly mistake by the media and public alike.

On the cusp of launching into the research for my own consent education tool, I’ve come to learn how the human-centered design process could offer a way forward.

Human-centered design is not limited to assuming the perspective of the humans benefiting from your design solution. Sure, we need to consider how teachers, experts, students, and parents will all engage with consent education materials.

But it’s more than that. It’s establishing a deep sense of empathy for the users before you even think about the problem you’re going to solve. It’s understanding life through their eyes, walking in their shoes and creating solutions that will be measured by the tangible benefit they provide.

If the creators of the milkshake video did the legwork to truly understand the experience of teenagers today, the result would have undoubtedly been different. Instead of jumping to questions like “How can we make these videos entertaining?” or “How can we explain this concept?”, they should have started with “What kind of problems is our audience facing?” and “What would be the most effective solution for them?”.

If they did, we would have gotten honest conversations about the real, and potentially dangerous, situations teenagers were facing. Instead, we were served goofy characters in fictional worlds explaining serious issues with frivolous metaphors.

Perhaps the most crucial page to take out of the human-centered design handbook is learning to see yourself as the apprentice and your audience as the expert. In line with this is the constant need for reiteration, refinement, and reiteration again. When you’re not the expert, you don’t know when your designs are out of date. Indeed, sex education materials have thus far struggled to remain relevant in a sea of ever-changing generations.

The slow process of policy making has left technology filling in the gaps, and the line between the digital and physical arenas continues to blur. Dating apps are a rite of passage, sexual assault is happening in virtual reality and kids are accessing porn at younger and younger ages. If we stand any chance of keeping up with the rapid cultural shifts passing us by, we’ll need to develop agile processes that let us action feedback and update materials at a reasonable pace.

The way we teach consent must incorporate solutions that are tailored to the audience’s experiences, both ‘real’ and virtual. That starts with seeing the world through their eyes – not by assuming we already know the problem or the solution.

All this is to say: while we can’t cry over spilled milk, we can learn from it. Put the lived experience of the humans at the crux of this problem and we can design solutions that are not only effective at countering domestic and gender-based violence, but are genuinely useful and engaging for young people. If we don’t, new sex and consent education materials can’t hope to escape the errors of past ones.

Because if we refuse to walk in the shoes of the young people we’re trying to reach, our efforts to curb the culture fuelling sexual assault will always be one step behind.