Imagine for a moment that you feel peaceful and trusting of the people you work with, the people you work for, and other businesses that make similar things. Then, imagine what it’s like when people use the thing you’ve made and they feel that same trust. Maybe it’s an open feeling. One that’s healthy and connected. Calm and peaceful. If you follow this train of thinking and feeling, then you already know what it feels like to produce ethical design.

Now, consider its opposite. Uber, in the past year has been racking up violations in a number of countries where it’s prohibited to operate. In response, the company designed and implemented a system whereby they could “spoof” Uber drivers for law enforcement and other groups that might infringe on the safety of their drivers. In part, it was protective, but overall it was known be shady. Almost as a clear acknowledgement of shady activity, Uber called the system “Greyball” internally.

This is the same company currently under scrutiny for sexual harassment. Most recently, Uber is a blight in the United Kingdom, was previously banned in Spain and operates illegally in Finland. The company does provide transportation for some and jobs for others, but their actions as a business are unethical. Uber has missed numerous opportunities to have a dialogue with the communities they serve, the groups that legislate against them and the people who work for them. An ethical approach to design and business means that you take the time to get to know your own stance then work with others to understand theirs. It’s complicated, but necessary work.

The business case for ethical design

If we craft our work as designers to respond to the needs of others, then we are ensuring the people who buy what we design can live in a place where they feel safe and more secure. As a result, those people are healthier and less-stressed. When people around us are calm, we are able to enjoy the world more. And if you feel like you’re missing the business angle, consider this: If fear and discomfort dominate the reasons why someone would buy your product, you burn them out emotionally and physically which reduces the supply of ready customers. When you only take, your revenues dry up. On the other hand, when you show goodwill towards others, you foster an internal sense of caring for other people. This improves the likelihood that people will care about your company. When people care about your business, they are more likely to support you through goodwill and increased revenue. It’s not rocket science. But being ethical is not always easy.

Uber has missed numerous opportunities to have a dialogue with the communities they serve, the groups that legislate against them and the people who work for them.

Design extends well beyond technology. We can consider graphic design, service design, industrial design and all manner of learning and expressing the needs of humans outside software user experience. That said, the same principles hold across industries. Historically, the recognition of a need for ethics in design exists in more mature disciplines like industrial design and ergonomics, where the shape and form of humans are considered in response to the shape and form of the products from those disciplines. Thankfully, more immature disciplines like software design are catching-up and borrow knowledge from other parts of the spectrum of design.

Making decisions and influencing others

Ethics becomes an issue in design when we realize that the role of design is to communicate the purpose of something. Whether we consider the layout of a user manual for a lawn mower, or the elegant curves of wooden spoon, design considerations saturate our world. It’s instructive then, to look at the ways that humans can be influenced and biased to make decisions.

In his classic book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini outlines the ways we negotiate and convince each other to do our bidding. The book reminds us that as much as we like to think that we rule our choices as humans, we are deeply affected by those around us and their behavior. We are prone to feel obligated when someone helps us and may put ourselves in debt to make a purchase from someone expecting reciprocation. We look at how others behave to ensure that we can fit in with the groups we like. We may also feel the need for a product or an event because there is a limited supply and it plays on our fear of missing out.

All of these scenarios play out frequently in environments like Facebook and LinkedIn. On LinkedIn, someone may offer a recommendation, hoping for a reference later down the road. On Facebook, we may see a friend’s photos of a vacation, which prompts us to take photos to rival theirs – we want to fit in. Or we may feel anxious about an upcoming event because it sells out quickly. We are primed for these responses.

If we craft our work as designers to respond to the needs of others, then we are ensuring the people who buy what we design can live in a place where they feel safe and more secure.

Behavioral economics offers an additional lens to see how we are biased. Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein focuses on the positive aspects of influence and how we can make better choices by finding better defaults. They suggest that we can do good in the world – especially as designers – by considering the long-term and system-wide consequences of an action and then setting good defaults. For example, if we work for a bank serving a poor population we might offer a default that automatically moves a certain amount of money into savings each time they receive a direct deposit from their employer. This helps people overcome the desire to buy something that makes them feel good in the short term in exchange for saving money that helps them feel secure in the long term. Groups like Ideas 42 and Irrational Labs take a pragmatic look at how to apply common savings techniques to help people save all over the world.

The right thing is not always easy

When you are designing with a fixed budget and deadline there are inevitably things that are left out of the design. This happens often in software development. In part, it has to do with the complexity of the design but also the immaturity of software as a discipline. Computer science was only taught regularly in college in the 1980s, when people started to purchase home computers. User experience design didn’t make an appearance in college coursework until the 2000s. We have a lot to learn.

An example of an intentional “dark pattern”, as curated by https://darkpatterns.org

Some of the ethical conflicts facing software designers are sometimes unintentional. Blind, deaf and disabled visitors to websites have known for a long time they are not always considered when people build software. The American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one response to this. Due to the ADA, health care companies and banks have faced lawsuits when their websites do not support the needs of the blind with accurate information for screen readers to help them navigate. In the case of health care, it’s one thing for a business to say they want to save money by moving their services online. It’s another thing entirely to recognize that the population you serve might not be able to see, hear or access the tools they need to support their own health and well-being. There are groups like SSB BART specialize in helping websites support the disabled.

Ethics becomes an issue in design when we realize that the role of design is to communicate the purpose of something.

Creating a culture of continuous learning is the best way for designers to consider harmful scenarios upfront. We may not catch all problems on the first release (you won’t), but we need to do our best to know what might be harmful to somebody during design. It will likely be overwhelming if you’re not used to doing this. Getting in the habit of asking, “What could go wrong?” helps you learn. Ethical decisions get easier over time. Considering how the thing you are designing might harm others puts you ahead of your competition (and in the case of ADA, ahead of the government filing a lawsuit against your company). How well you meet the needs of everyone in society reflects how ethical you are in design.

Imagine the lives of others

When we are present with one another – not distracted by our phones, laptops or incoming email – we have an opportunity to see how we are doing. A smile or a quick glance from someone can communicate and change our understanding of what people say when they are with us. If there is a screen in between us and that person, we might miss it. We need to change that and connect in-person.

A bank serving a poor population might offer a default that automatically moves a certain amount of money into savings each time they receive a direct deposit from their employer.

Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering is one of the godfathers of usability. His work has influenced user experience design significantly since the 1980s. He reminds us that as designers, we should get everyone on the project team to spend at least two hours, every six weeks with our customers. An actual customer. Not a presentation of research done by a select group of people who research customers. Not a conversation with someone in the hallway who once met someone on the customer support team who once met a customer: real customers.

Spool suggests that people on the team designing and building a product need to meet with customers at least every six weeks because we have a tendency to forget. Of all the biases that shape how we see the world, one of the most prevalent in recency bias. We believe that the last thing that left an emotional impression is the most important piece of information. After years of working with companies to design software, Spool found that six weeks is about the maximum time before team members start forgetting their visit with the customer.

The difference between sitting through a presentation with video, charts and photographs, or even sitting in an observation room during a focus group does not match walking into the room, shaking your customer’s hand and seeing how the thing you designed is changing their life. Imagine watching a customer fumble with a kiosk interface and drop their credit card while they try to make a purchase, versus a statistic that 60% of your users were unable to complete a transaction. It becomes a real, human experience when we make the time to connect.

How well you meet the needs of everyone in society reflects how ethical you are in design.

The experience of seeing and understanding how other people use the products you make can change how you and your clients approach the work. The more time you spend cultivating compassion for the people that use what you make, the more likely you are to meet their needs and earn a healthy profit. And not just a financial profit, but one of wellbeing because you can see and understand that you’ve made the lives of others easier. You made you client’s life easier and made yours easier too.

It takes discipline to do the right thing

Our habits are not easy to change. They protect us and allow us to feel some level of comfort during the day. If we change what we feel is important in our design practice, it’s going to take time. It might be uncomfortable. That is the moment to explore.

Maintaining the importance of ethics and the wellbeing of others while negotiating deadlines and expected return on investment is hard work. It requires educating your clients. It requires educating yourself. Being open to curiosity and learning. When you understand why you are making the decisions you make, it has a long-term impact. Like strength-training for a marathon, it takes discipline and foresight to make it all work. It takes time to train ourselves, but it pays dividends toward how we feel about ourselves, our loved ones and the community. It’s an investment in humanity worth making.

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