Andrew Lovett-Barron, Founder, KNOWSI

Managing the consent relationship between researchers and their participants




With the advent of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe, as well as a general trend towards data privacy regulation in the US, the intent to “do better” is now an imperative. The power asymmetry between researchers and participants will never be perfect, but what if it could at least be clearer?

To design an application post-GDPR is to take the perspective that privacy is not an abstraction, but something that you and I have a responsibility to implement.  And once implemented, it becomes very difficult to change.

Design research –- basically ethnographic and other qualitative research methods tweaked to empower the creation of a service, experience, or product –- comes with an uncomfortable power asymmetry where the researcher is learning substantial information about the participant, often with accompanying media. Ethical researchers have long gathered consents, often signed on paper, but the practice isn’t universal. Even when collected, this paper then disappears into backpacks, drawers, or occasionally the ether— never to be seen again.



Knowsi is a consent management tool rooted in my own experience as a design researcher. When I look to the GDPR, I don’t just see a regulatory framework. I see a baseline design standard to engage with the abstractions of privacy and consent and make them the bedrock of our software. When you create something that users entrust and transact their identity through, you realize that each design decision is implementing a perspective on what privacy entails. Every bit of text labeling a button in the user interface (UI) is a statement about intent; just as determining the scope of an application programming interface (API) call is a perspective on the scope of an individual’s rights to privacy.

Who is this for?

  • Field and user researchers

  • Creatives who have to collect photos, audio, or personal data about others to do their work, like a photographer or a reporter doing a “person on the street” interview.

  • Managers who need to be sure that product and research teams comply to the GDPR.


Essen is on site at a UNHCR camp, researching for her company that creates logistic software for international aid organizations. She’s arranged about half of her interviews in advance, and is planning on the other half being opportunistic or through introduction.

Many of the UN employees and aid workers are European, and she knows that they fall under the GDPR’s clause on data protection, so she wants all of her research to be GDPR compliant just to be safe. Plus, her company’s errors and omissions insurance requires it.

For gathering consents and managing the data she collects, Essen uses Knowsi. She can send consent forms in advance to those she has scheduled, and have ad-hoc interview participants sign in person on her phone or tablet. Participants can clearly see what they are agreeing to, and Knowsi summarizes the level of consent for the researcher, so Essen knows whether she can record or take photos immediately.

Her research participants get an email receipt for their consent form, and an interface that gives them control over their ongoing consent. If they have second thoughts, or if they realize that they weren’t allowed to provide photographic consents, their relationship with Essen can continue and their consents can evolve. Likewise, Essen can reach out with a request for broader consent if appropriate.

Afterwards, Essen can use Knowsi to organize her data on her favorite cloud platform, and Knowsi can help Essen stay compliant with the GDPR’s data retention and deletion requirements by managing data retention and ongoing consent management for her.

Knowsi addresses the administrative challenges of performing ethical research by:

  1. implementing an opinionated perspective on privacy in a useful tool for researchers,

  2. a seamless experience for participants, and

  3. a necessary liability shield for businesses.

Knowsi is a Trojan Horse for better research practices. We launch in the spring of 2019, and you can sign up for early access at