A Practice of Ethics: Five Questions for Designers

We need to talk about our ethics.

As individual practitioners, designers have a responsibility to society independent of our client or employer. Unlike doctors or lawyers, this responsibility has not been defined by our community under a single code. Each of us makes it up as we go, relying on our gut, conversations with colleagues and lessons gleaned from the public missteps of others.

As our work is deployed at ever greater speed and scale, and as our influence on people’s lives grows deeper and more complex, this piecemeal improvisation isn’t enough.

Too often, “Will this boost DAUs?” trumps “Does this satisfy anyone’s needs?”. “Is it easier to use?” drowns out “Will they understand what this means?”. And when deadlines loom, “It’s not my call,” soothes any niggling doubts.

As consumers, we’re the first to notice an ethical lapse in a product we otherwise love. “How could they have signed off on this?” we ask. Yet as designers, we make these bad calls all the time. Not for lack of will or influence, but because it’s not always clear in the moment what is at stake.

It’s time we dust off our moral compass.

A few months ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon chewing on all this with my friend Boris Anthony. Boris was taking a month in Japan to digest and reflect, coming off a few years of strategic design and experience architecture at HERE, Nokia’s mapping and navigation services division, where he worked several “powers of ten” beyond what most of us might identify as design: preparing the patterns and sewing the seams between systems of systems, each teeming with the digital breadcrumb trails of billions of human beings. This responsibility had made Boris acutely aware of the lack of ethical rigor in the practice of design. Never one to leave a good conversation to rest, AQ invited him to host a discussion of ethics in design for a special edition of our talk series Ride The Lightning on April 16th.

Our discussion with Boris at AQ, April 16th

When Boris joined Nokia, he found himself enveloped by Finnish design philosophy and was struck by the strong sense of societal responsibility evident in the execution of everyday products. He understood that this approach had its roots deep in humanism and the socio-economic transitions Finland experienced in the wake of industrialization. There was an urgent need and desire to modernize society, to provide affordable, hygienic and delightful instruments of higher living standards. Designers were a central part of this project and strived to meet these ideals, whether they were working on houses, dinner plates or children’s clothing.

Boris is worried that the critical thought necessary for this level of follow-through is too often lost in the pursuit of such things as “seamlessness” and “scalability”, in the name of user experience.

Good ethical practice, inseparable from good design, begins with investigation, with questions. What follows are a few questions we should ask ourselves to clarify the stakes as we design, pulled from the conversation with Boris and our guests. These questions are not easy to answer: in fact, some of them could take a lifetime to unravel. But the more effort we put into understanding the answers, the better prepared we are to fulfill our commitment to ensure our impact on people’s lives is a positive one.

1. Who are the parties?

Designing products and services means designing a system of interactions which facilitates a value exchange between parties. To understand the exchange, we must first identify these parties and the outcomes they are seeking.

Most of the interactions we design occur between some combination of people (often called users or customers) and the organizations (often businesses) who own or sponsor the technology driving the interaction.

In order to understand users, we conduct interviews, build personas, run database queries, and so on. In order to understand the business, we interview stakeholders, gather requirements, set KPIs, and so on.

But these activities often yield a simplified, static understanding of the parties, based upon a smoothed-over, hyper-rational model of the messy, dynamic realities on each side. Behind each need lies interests and expectations, stated or unstated. We must ask why? until we stop getting new information, then why? once more.

Moreover, if the exchange we design has any impact at all, it will change the nature of both the business and the user, and attract new parties to the exchange. If we don’t track this over time, we risk designing for people who no longer exist.

2. What is being exchanged?

In every exchange, the user gains something and loses something. The business, too, gains something and loses something. This could be currency, time, information, knowledge, privacy, choice, autonomy, access… the list goes on. We often think of such exchanges as being monetary. But increasingly, the exchanges have wide-reaching and personal consequences, affecting people’s social status, intimacy, creativity and peace of mind.

The answer is rarely only the first thing we think of, and often a combination of things.

Is Uber selling mobility, time, social status, or peace of mind? All of the above. Are riders and drivers gaining or losing autonomy? It depends. When someone uses a subway transit card to buy eggs at a Japanese convenience store, are they giving up currency, privacy, intimacy and choice? Maybe some now and maybe some later.

Exchanges may take place over milliseconds, but they are redeemed over months or years — the benefits and obligations are sometimes attached to very long strings. It’s our responsibility to follow those strings as far as we can.

3. Who else might this impact?

We should also consider the invisible parties at the edges of the exchange.

For every reviewer there is the reviewed. Behind every photo tagger is the tagged. Every one-click buy is preceded and followed by a unique chain of human, mechanical and informational exchanges. A hole is dug at one end and filled at the other. An investment is made. A database of mothers’ maiden names is cloned or forked.

Whose shoulders is each party sitting on? Who is being excluded and why? What is the cost of exclusion? Who is wittingly or unwittingly involved in the exchanges which come before or after, or become more or less frequent as a result of the one we are designing? What are the many non-user experiences that surround the user experience?

If what you’re making has any impact at all, it will reverberate throughout society and your sense of responsibility should reflect that. These reverberations are also part of the brief.

4. How is the exchange being communicated?

Frictionless. Don’t make me think. Seamless. Wow factor. Magic.

These are the mantras that guide much of today’s design discourse in the race from zero to one, borne from past battles against poor usability and uninspired products, now being used to grease the slippery slopes of lock-in, auto-renew, and big personal data.

How is the exchange being communicated to the user? Does the user know what they’re gaining? Do they know what they’re giving up now, and possibly later?

Interface design is largely the management of cognitive friction, through both addition and subtraction.

Some friction is borne of our simple incompetence. This friction leads to the potholes of user experience—hidden data entry requirements, inscrutable error messages, long page loading times. Some friction is borne of greed, such as the tedious impedance of user abandonment. “Are you sure?” Yes, I’m sure.

But some friction is borne of respect, when we present information about the choices available to users and help them make better decisions. An emailed invoice could remind a customer they were paying for a service they no longer use. A checkbox could assure a user of their current content privacy settings before posting a sensitive photo. Recognition of a past purchase can save a customer the hassle of having to return a book they already have, or confirm that they are re-buying exactly the same shampoo.

When we add or remove friction from an interaction, let us be clear and intentional about why we are doing so — to reduce true noise, to heighten or dull the senses, clarify or obscure the value exchange, to remove stress or to postpone it.

5. How might this change with scale?

Our day to day decisions take on a new weight as the user base grows. When entire communities or even society itself has a stake in what we design, the impact of every detail is amplified.

At such scale, we cannot hope to meet a truly representative group of users, nor predict the infinite use cases and interactions our work must support. Our decisions begin to resemble that of policy makers and city planners, rife with blind spots and intractable trade offs.

Will our designs meet most of our users’ needs well into the future? Will it create expectations we may not be able to meet someday? There are no confident answers to these questions, but we must ask them.

Some of our early structural decisions tend to stick around longer than we would like, so we need to already be looking ahead to see if they are strong and flexible enough to adapt at scale.

We often start a project with the best intentions, only for them to be gradually warped by decisions so incremental we barely notice how far we’ve strayed from the starting line. As Mike Monteiro put it, “bad design makes it into the world not through malicious intent but through no intent at all.”

I believe most designers are motivated by a desire to make people’s lives better. But it’s not enough to remember this motivation only at critical junctures: when switching jobs, reading an effusive review of something we designed, or seeing our client on the morning news. Design is a daily practice, and if we are to transform this motivation into a commitment, we need to consider the motivations and ethical implications of even our smallest decisions.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this. You can leave a note on the Medium version or on Twitter.

Thanks to Boris Anthony for inspiring this essay, and Sophie Knight for helping me find the words.

Notes and Reading

June 10, 2015