I’m writing this post as part of my 6-month learning journey as a student at DesignLab’s UX Academy. This week’s focus is on product design, and this short think-piece centers on responsible digital design.
With websites and apps hosting an ever-expanding range of human activity, they have increasingly been the object of normative scrutiny on the part of those who create and use these digital spaces. There is a growing moral disquiet about the current regime that governs our online shopping, banking, voting, dating, and learning activities. At best, it is criticised for being inadequate in holistically addressing human users’ needs; at worst, it is judged to be abusive, exploitative and downright evil.
As designers shaping the systems and interfaces that form the core of humanity’s experience of connectivity, we are in a unique position to shift the foundations of that experience and erect it on more humane, purposeful and delightful pillars. As formulated by Cennydd Bowles :
Designers as such have a central role in safeguarding digital products so they not only empower but also protect users.
This responsibility starts with designers’ own output. Design teams should demand high ethical standards from themselves and their colleagues. Internal product development conversations are where key ethical questions are answered, whether intentionally or not. Designers should be active in these conversations, (…) highlighting ethical concerns even at the risk of short-term unpopularity.
The following article highlights four areas from which digital designers can begin to rethink their design practices from an ethical perspective. Before we get started, I find it helpful to first frame our discussion by pinning down some parameters of thought around the admittedly fuzzy concept of “ethics in design”.
Ethical Hierarchy of Needs
To set a common ground for approaching the concept of ethical design, I will refer to the “Ethical Design Hierarchy of Needs” conceptualised by Aral Balkan and Laura Kalbag at Ind.ie.
Following Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, each level of the pyramid rests on the layer(s) below it. Hence the respect of human rights — which Balkan and Kalbag characterise as “respect(ing) and protect(ing) (your) civil liberties, reduc(ing) inequality, and benefit(ing) democracy” — constitutes the fundamental principle that all design considered ethical should conform to. The higher-tier ethical yardsticks point to respect for human effort and delight in use.
In his article “The ethics of good design: A principle for the connected age”, Aaron Weyenberg proposes adding an 11th amendment to Dieter Ram’s timeless constitution of good design principles, which I feel elegantly articulates the pyramid’s ethical priorities :
11. Good design is ethical. The product places the user’s interest at the center of its purpose. Any effort to influence the user’s agency or behavior is in the spirit of their own positive wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those around them.
Now that we have traced the contours of some ethical design elements, let’s look at four pathways where we as designers can apply, advocate for and innovate on ethical design practices.
1. Designing for wellbeing
Whether it is design patterns that “hijack” our “psychological vulnerabilities” and foster negative feelings of social anxiety, loneliness and boredom, dark-pattern driven design that mislead users into behaviour that goes against their needs and interests, or digital products and services that are designed specifically to enhance their narcotic properties, most of the digital space in which we move today shows a dangerous disregard for our wellbeing as users.
Navigating this area of ethical design can also be tough if the organization you’re working within exploits such unhealthy design patterns in the name of profit. The authors at White Hat UX have argued against the soundness of this business argument, pointing out the value of honest user experience as a competitive advantage and providing tips for designers to make way for it in their day-to-day practice.
2. Designing for accessibility
To use the words of fellow Medium contributor Pablo Stanley :
Digital accessibility refers to the practice of building digital content and applications that can be used by a wide range of people, including individuals who have visual, motor, auditory, speech, or cognitive disabilities.
Closing the digital accessibility gap means ensuring that use of the digital commons becomes truly equitable, so that the higher tiers of the Ethical Design Hierarchy of Needs can be in reach for all people. The 7 Principles of Universal Design provides a useful, actionable framework for systematically incorporating accessible design principles in design work.
3. Designing for privacy
Protecting privacy rights responds to the first level of the Ethical Design Hierarchy of Needs, while the building of trust that comes with this respect can elevate the user’s experience to the level of delight. Designers can play their part in protecting users’ privacy by proposing design elements (especially in privacy notices and settings) that help keep people informed and that make it painless for users to modify and delete their data.
4. Designing for the Sustainable Development Goals… in a human-centered way
Admittedly, this last pathway finds more affinity with “Design for Good” movements (most prominently IDEO.org) that ally design’s capacity for creative problem-solving and international development priorities, rather than strict ethical design principles and practices. I would also like to make clear that its inclusion in this list is less indebted to the supposed moralistic prestige affiliated to the UN’s 2030 Agenda than to the “human-centered” approach that makes design in such contexts ethical. In other words, placing the very human values of empathy and collaboration at the heart of design processes aimed at finding innovative and local solutions to global sustainable development issues is what makes this a particularly interesting application of ethical design.
There concludes my first ever virtual contribution to design discussion! What do you think about the four pathways laid out in this article? Do you have any resources/experiences to share? Let’s talk in the space below or at [email protected] 😉