Ethical design seems like a straightforward concept. “Design things ethically, right?” Well, yeah. But what does that mean exactly? And how does that actually work in practice? It’s important for designers to understand the impact they have and the steps they can take to make products that are good for your users, good for business and good for society. In this article we’ll break it all down, describe the main principles of ethical design, show you examples for good and bad design and go over some ways to work toward more ethical designs.

Ethical design
How does a designer decide what is right and wrong? Illustration by OrangeCrush

What is ethical design?

Ethical design is designing great products alongside your morals and beliefs and the principles of your business. What you create, whether a website, a marketing campaign or a product, has an effect on real people and those effects can create ripples.

Ideally, as a designer you would want to take responsibility for your ethical efforts, but that responsibility often gets passed off to others. Culture, society and politics are shifting the status quo of what is “ethical” and what has become normalized. As the status quo shifts in an ever-changing world, how can designers keep ethical designs in mind? That’s where the principles of ethical design come in.

The principles of ethical design

Many of the principles for ethical design revolve around respect for human rights, effort and experience, and are even inspired by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The “Ethical Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid created by Aral Balkan and Laura Kalbag illustrates the core of ethical design and how each layer of the pyramid rests and depends on the layer beneath it to ensure that the design is ethical.

The Ethical Hierarchy of Needs
The Ethical Hierarchy of Needs illustrates that if any layer is unfulfilled, the pyramid will collapse Via Ind.ie

Let’s go over some basic principles that fulfill these needs including some ethical design examples.

Usability

These days usability should be a basic requirement. An unusable product is considered a design failure. More specifically the design should help the user accomplish what they want, meet their needs, and be easy and pleasant to use. Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group defined five core components of usability:

  • Learnability—How easy is it for first-time users?
  • Efficiency—How quickly can users perform tasks?
  • Memorability—What is the experience for returning users?
  • Errors—How many errors do users make and how severe are these errors?
  • Satisfaction—How pleasant is it to use the design?

Designers also have a moral obligation to create products that are intuitive and safe. An explosive example of where usability fails: remember when Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 would spontaneously catch fire? On the other hand, an example of where good usability improves the user’s experience: American pharmacy Walgreens supports their users with an app that sends timely reminders to refill on things like vitamins, which can then be ordered in-app by scanning the barcode on a prescription bottle. These are small details and adjustments in design that can greatly impact user experience.

Accessibility

Accessibility should be incorporated in the development process of any product or service being built, not as an afterthought at the end. Products are always designed for the “targeted customer” but think of who is (un)intentionally left out. Often these are folks with disabilities. As an example, website design is not always optimized for those with vision impairment despite the fact that, according to the World Health Organization, at least 1 billion people are blind or visually impaired.

There is assistive technology for those with vision impairment to use the internet, however there are often web design flaws that prevent accessibility. Some of the more frequent problems found by blind users include: areas not accessible via the screen reader, images without alternative text and links or buttons without accessible description. Accessible design benefits everyone!

The Forgotten Tarot Cards of Tech
Who is forgotten from your user design? Via Tarot Cards of Tech

Privacy

Privacy issues are always a hot topic with digital design, with Alexa listening to our conversations, Google monitoring our clicks and Facebook reading our private messages. The best ethical design practice would be to develop designs that only collect personal information that is in the best interest of the users.

For example, Signal is a secure phone and messenger app specifically designed to protect its user’s privacy. When you sign up, it doesn’t ask for anything but your phone number because that’s all that’s necessary to start using the app. With increasing awareness and concern about privacy as a result of targeted advertising and data-driven businesses, there has been backlash and more customers are seeking out brands that respect our right to privacy.

Transparency & persuasion

Best practice for ethical design is to provide transparency so that users can make informed choices, which includes providing clear ways for users to opt out of memberships easily. For example, on Amazon you can get free shipping if you do a trial of Amazon Prime. However, after your free trial is up, Amazon will automatically charge you for the full cost of the annual membership unless you manually cancel and there isn’t any warning or notification before they charge you.

Additionally, to what extent should designers influence the behavior and thoughts of users. Often it is too easy to submit to social pressures, or even subtle suggestions. As an anecdotal example, my mother did research at Kaiser Permanente and mentioned writing consent forms for the client case studies where they could not use caps lock/UPPERCASE type because it is deemed too coercive. As designers you should be aware that even the fonts and colors you use can sway your audience.

Bad Wolf Tarot Cards of Tech
I shouldn’t have to say it’s not ethical to prey on the vulnerable! Via Tarot Cards of Tech

User involvement

Ultimately, the designer is designing for the user. Doesn’t it make sense to include users in design decisions, from users’ needs and ideas. Your design will become a part of their life, and ideally that becomes a positive experience.

Human-Centered Design (HCD), a philosophy developed by Don Norman, supports “the active involvement of users and a clear understanding of user and task requirements.” HCD calls for the involvement of the target customer early and continuously throughout the process to understand the problems they have and how your product can help solve those problems, which ultimately helps with usability.

The most effective ways of studying user involvement is holding small groups of user testing which will show you where the flaws lie, then you can revise the design and test again. And again. And again! The process of Human-Centered Design, sometimes referred to as design thinking, is concerned with how design will improve the user’s experience.

Focus

Designers should understand that whatever tool or service they are creating is just a small part of any user’s world and that your user also needs a break sometimes. These products should be there when the user needs them and stay out of their way whenever they don’t.

Netflix and Youtube make it too easy to binge watch with their auto-play function. And there’s also Facebook which is designed to suck you in. Even Sean Parker, former President of Facebook, has described how Facebook has intentionally designed the platform to exploit human behavior using a “social-validation feedback loop” to make us crave that hit of dopamine from likes or comments, encouraging the user to post again or to keep checking for new notifications.

Sustainability

Climate change is a global issue and it’s time that we as designers consider the impact of our work on the world’s environment, resources and climate. An excellent example of an ethical design trend embracing sustainability is circular design which uses a closed loop design strategy where resources are continuously repurposed.

Rather than creating products and services that have a linear lifecycle with a beginning, a middle and an end, the purpose is to design products that are continuously cycled in various forms, following a reuse and recycle loop resulting in less waste. Many companies are embracing circular design, like 57st. design who make modular furniture, AMP Robotics who program more effective recycling robots, and PlasticRoad which recycles plastic into modular road-building blocks.

Mother Nature Tarot Cards of Tech
How do considerations for the environment come into your design? Via Tarot Cards of Tech

How to make your design more ethical

The easiest way to adopt ethical design is to ingrain these principles into your practice from the beginning. Rather than getting toward the end of the process and trying to add more accessible elements or tacking on privacy notification as an afterthought simply to protect the business, start with a clear understanding and intention.

As a way to start the process on the right foot, connect to the mission and values of the companies and implement those morals to your design. This is a great opportunity to challenge the client or company to live up to their promises and as the designer you will support them to carry out their mission.

Service Dog Tarot Cards of Tech
How can your business be man’s best friend? Via Tarot Cards of Tech

Keep track of assumptions

Oftentimes it’s our assumptions that get us in trouble. Especially if there is no contact with the users of the product, it’s easy to assume how the product will be used.

The problem with design based on assumption is that it doesn’t involve the people you are serving and could result in potential risks or consequences for the users, the company or society. By keeping track of each assumption, you’ll never forget about the limitations of your design (and will remember to test and make adaptations).

Try ‘Dark Reality’ sessions

The first important step towards ethical design is to start asking the hard questions in order to identify your product’s weaknesses and potential consequences. This is called a ‘Dark Reality’ session, a practice started by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. This technique focuses on stress-testing a concept with challenging questions. There are helpful tools available, like Tarot Cards of Tech, with questions like:

  • “What is the lifespan of your product?
  • What if the user base will be in the millions?
  • What are the long-term effects on economy, society, and the environment?
  • Who benefits from your design? Who loses? Who is excluded?
  • How could your design be misused?

Dark Reality sessions will help you consider and identify your concept’s weaknesses and produce a list of questions and assumptions. These areas of weaknesses and assumptions can be tested with potential users and adjusted to their needs.

Smash Hit Tarot Cards of Tech
Tarot Cards of Tech help you ask the important questions about your design. Via Tarot Cards of Tech

Ethical design predicaments and how to deal with them

There are many reasons why ethical design is overlooked or ignored. Some might say it is inconvenient, too complex, or there is a lack of time and budget. As mentioned, these concerns can be reduced by starting early with the right expectations and intentions. Change can’t happen overnight. But by taking small steps at every opportunity, you can reach for long-term, organizational change.

The other difficulty as we have touched on is determining whose responsibility is it to ensure the design is ethical. The boss’s, client’s, manufacturer’s, government’s, or consumer’s?

Everyone takes a piece of the responsibility pie, including designers. You can take the time to check if products are designed ethically and hold everyone accountable if they are not. Companies can require ethical design from designers, since it adds value to the products. And designers can make this a part of their code of conduct, which will add value to their brand. There are plenty of benefits of ethical design, especially long-term ones, that can bolster the brand and product of those involved.

Designing an ethical future

Out of responsibility to the environment, human kind and yourself, keep in mind these ethical design principles when moving forward with your future projects. You can even make a pledge to make this part of your code of conduct as a designer.

No matter how you practice ethical design, if you hold on to your beliefs and moral principles, it will guide you to the best possible outcome. Your future users will be thankful!

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