Ethical Design: A practical manifesto ; in progress

ethical designing

What is ethical design?

In the simplest terms, design ethics deal with establishing a relationship between a product & a user in a way that it supports responsible & moral choices. Ethical design is all about defining & designing the “goodness” factor within a product design that aims to benefit the individual user, their ecosystem, & the society as a whole.

Speaking pragmatically, there are no right or wrong, black or white answers as to what makes a design system “ethical”. However, there are a few parameters that can help you analyze whether a design system is ethical or not.

  • Usability – Unusable products, regardless of their aesthetic values, are failures. And products that have high usability can be deemed ethical if they are intuitive, safe for the user, & practically free from disasters or life-threatening errors. In this regard, error prevention forms the backbone.
  • Accessibility – Inclusive designs are no longer “good-to-haves”. If your design system ignores the needs or pain points of a certain segment of users (disabled or autistic or ones struggling with technology or language), it quickly permeates into the unethical zone. Remember, people forget designs that forget people.
  • Privacy – A surmounting issue in the current day of social media & big data where personal information is commodified & sold by large corporations. As designers it’s not just a privilege but a huge responsibility on how you utilize the tons of user data you have easy access to.
  • Persuasion – There is a fine line between ranking high on factors such as user engagement or time spent on the app or even conversions AND squeezing out every last bit of user’s attention/resources/energy for the sake of high usage.
  • Focus & Time – Every digital platform is competing for just one thing – human attention. As designers who stand by ethics, it’s our job to cut back on everything that can and will disrupt a user’s attention. In the same lines, bring down the “addictiveness” factor of the product & not leave the user feeling drained out, guilty, stressed, or overstimulated at the end of the day.
  • Sustainability – A crucial element that tends to take the backseat with a community dominated by human-centered design principles (HCD) is environment & ecosystem. What is the impact of your work/ product/design with respect to climate change, global warming, & related environmental factors. Is increasing app download or enhancing stakeholder value the only direction at which your design is pointed towards?
  • Society – No man’s an island. We all reside within a complex ecosystem with myriad factors, most of which have been impacted by digital technology. From state-level democracy issues to individual-level mental health concerns, everything comes under the realm of designers. Mindful & ethical designers realize this incredible responsibility and thus build not just for a handful of clients, stakeholder or users but for communities & societies as a whole.

Defending freedom & privacy in a digital-first world through ethical design

Individual freedom is a core tenet on which the entire Western political thought stands on. Not only do the regular chants of “Liberty, equality, & fraternity” dominate every debate in the western political thought process, but also deeply entrenched in the modern day culture. The fundamental philosophy that guides them is that in a modern society, everyone should be able to live freely, with a minimum force pervading their lives.

However the biggest question here is – is only a tyrannical government or a fundamentalist dictator a symbol of imprisonment? What about big corporations or social media companies manipulating us, keeping us addicted, & trading our attention spans for capitalist or political agenda?

While it is easy to understand tangible threats to our individual freedom such as state repression or lack of freedom of speech, intangible perils are difficult to decipher.

The fact that we have been manipulated by marketing gimmicks, advertising, & sales pitches for quite some time now, it’s only recently that we are waking up to it. Realizing the problem is bigger & more pervasive than we could ever imagine.

And in many cases, people believe that since it’s within their fundamental freedom to behave or consume things the way they want, they ironically become imprisoned to the larger power controlling their actions.

Take for example the McDonalds.

We think rationally that we as consumers are making a free choice by opting to eat those loaded burgers. However, the effects of their pervasive advertising is spread so insidiously that the link between the advent of greasy fast food chains and the skyrocketing obesity, especially among kids & teens is undeniable.

Same goes with smoking, tobacco consumption, alcohol, & these days seemingly harmless non-chemical dependency actions such as shopping & yes you guessed it right, digital addiction.

Designers are not in the business of just crafting interfaces & experiences. They are in the business of establishing meaningful connections between users & businesses

We regret using our phones too much.

We regret doom scrolling.

Yet here we are, every night, with the phones in our hands, uncontrollably glued to what else the teensy bit of pixels have to show, with every passing second.

A recent study indicates that people with Nomophobia (No Mobile Phone Phobia), aka roughly 53% of the general population, feel anxiety, agitation, irritation & restlessness characteristic to general phobia disorders.

To treat this as an individual’s problem would be an exercise in futility.

The reason being this uncontrollable urge or addiction, whitewashed with acceptable terms such as product stickiness or higher app engagement, is a deliberate attempt by mega tech companies to rob us of our attention span.

Addictive design techniques, powered by big data & behavioral psychology are fundamental tenets of their product design methodology. Our psychological need to numb or run away from pain towards pleasure has been harnessed time & again by big tech companies to keep us momentarily happy or engaged in an otherwise state of limbo.

The question here is – is the oppression caused by addictive product design any less threatening & jeopardizing than oppressive governments?

Nestled between the odd juxtaposition of protecting individual freedom & wide-spread digital enslavement, where human attention span is commodified & sold to the highest bidder, lies the role of a designer. One that pays heed to the issues of accessibility, inclusivity, & ethics in design.

How does one start the war against addictive design mechanisms?

  • Ethics evangelism – Encourage discussions about the “attention economy” within your circles.
  • No to notifications – Be mindful of how you as a designer respond to notifications & empower those around you to be more mindful of the same.
  • Nip it in the bud – By being active advocates of ethical design in the strategy phase itself. Understanding the difference between healthy meaningful interactions & the ones the keep you unhealthily attached to your phone

As designers we hold a position of great power.

The power to define the relationship between a user (a human being) with a digital product.

Conscious or unconscious attempts to recklessly manipulate this balance in the name of engagement, usability, or product stickiness would mean curtailing their freedom & rights. Instead of trying to explain what qualifies as ethical, it would be easier & more tangible to define what is unethical in terms of product design.

If happiness is the end goal, anything that goes against this is unethical. (Again not a black-and-white rule, just a better heuristic to begin with)

This includes the regret from using too much social media.

Pangs of jealousy, inadequacy, powerlessness, & emptiness felt from a barrage of filtered images on social media, making you feel less thus triggering you to resort to temporary pleasures to make you feel good. Be it binge eating or endless shopping or gambling or the last puff of cigarette you gotta have before you go to sleep.

Remember, as designers you are not only deciding how people interact with digital interfaces but also how these digital interactions change the way people interact in the real, physical world.

Engagement, stickiness, & addiction: How to deal with these ethically?

Addictive design & dark patterns make use of powerful behavioral psychology principles to drive clicks, force people to take up subscriptions, get mindlessly hooked to excessive app usage, & at times result in blatant user data privacy breach.

What is the antidote to this dark & sinister design methodology that lurks at every corner of the internet?

It was during the early 90s that behavior design gained momentum as an essential element of interaction design, when designers started realizing the far-reaching effects of their work in a user’s life.

Now that we live in an era where digital interactions shape how we interact in the physical world, the core values of ethical design, as established by B.J.Fogg are proving to be more & more irrevocable.

Manipulations are turning harder to spot.

Be it shopping for a certain brand of shoes, choosing burgers over home-cooked meals or voting for a particular candidate in national elections.

As  a designer when you are yet again tasked with designing digital interfaces with “increased engagement”, this is where you must breathe deeply & take a step back in laying down the ground rules for

  1. What qualifies as a nudge towards healthier habits?
  2. What can quickly manifest as unhealthy attachments & habit formation?

A good start would be to get more & more familiarized with the concept of “hook”, the primary topic of Nir Eyal’s 2014 bestseller “Hooked”.

A touchy subject in design, design hooks tend to help people build positive habits through the cascaded effect of – trigger, action, reward, investment.

Designing for good habits can be seen all around you, with marked positive impact within the arenas of healthcare & finance. Today, on one side you have apps that keep bombarding you with lucrative offers on food, shopping, & social media notifications, on the other side you have app reminders to go for a run, or drink water, or save money.

Similar design systems, different goals.  Makes all the difference.

Here’s a brief checklist that will help you wade safely through the murky waters of addictive design patterns

  1. Triggers – Too many notifications tend to get ignored. Too few, and you get ignored again.  If a product is meaningful & adding value to the user’s life, you don’t need too many notifications to stay on the radar. Another important consideration here is the around overall content strategy and microcopy: is the tone and voice apt for the situation? Is it too distracting? Is it directing users’ attention towards the right goals? Thus, a rising need of ace microcopy writers within the UX domain.
  1. Intent – Helping users solve their problems is the best & only intent to have. Eating healthier, running that extra mile, focusing on building mature spending habits – all of these are great intentions to maintain throughout the interface design. This is a helpful yardstick for drawing that line between “adding value” & “keeping users engaged” without any set goal.

  1. Action – With a clear cut set of goals in mind, you can now choose to determine things that influence action/behavior over a digital platform. Design elements used at this stage can respond to what motivates people and how to make it as easy as possible for them to use. If you want certain actions to be performed more, make it easy to perform them. Designers must understand the contextual use of their products. Where more focus is required, ability, and thus action, can be limited.  Again, all of these have to be practiced with the best intentions in mind.
  1. Rewards – Contrary to popular belief, the reward center in our brain is activated not when we get a reward, but when we anticipate it. Variable rewards can add an air of mystery increasing the appeal. However, the proper contextual application of these is necessary. Every interface has a different goal. You cannot make the Instagram “like” button work universally for all digital platforms. Indicators of self-competency, mastery, & achievement are a good way to keep users contextually engaged instead of being mindlessly hooked.

The daily ethical design challenge : An at-home approach

How to practice ethical design? (Even when it becomes a pain in the neck)
Implementing the tenets of ethical design on a daily basis, in everything we do as designers, is irksome in the least and a colossal roadblock on an average.

Most (In fact all) of you will agree that it’s one thing to have a strong moral compass, but a whole other ballgame to put the money where the mouth is.

Sometimes it is a paucity of time, looming deadlines, pressing need of the stakeholders and/or simply our own laziness to take the path not less traveled. How to ensure we remain steadfast in the path of ethics as designers?

Wake up, practice, repeat – Ideally, there shouldn’t be a separate term “ethical designs”, ethics should become ingrained to your work & DNA. Carry this value everyday in everything you do. Bring it to the table everyday, for every project you work on. Become staunch advocates of ethical practices. By thinking through more consciously & deliberately we will not only neutralize ethics problem areas in the design process but also become better designers overall.

The value of connecting values – By finding & establishing strong connections between our personal values as designers & the values of the organization we work for, we can bring strategic & structural improvements in the degree of ethics we practice. Daily.

Harbor no assumption – Assumption is the mother of all goof-ups. For designers, it’s a cardinal sin.  By structurally keeping track of these assumptions, you’ll never forget about the limitations of your design and where the potential risks lie in terms of (harmful) impact on users, the project, the company, and society. So what’s the way around it? Be mindful of your work & process  by keeping a track of all the assumptions that you consciously or subconsciously harbor as a designer about users. Between defining target demography & creating user personas, stuff that serve as the foundation of your design, it’s easy to get swayed by assumptions.

With great power comes great responsibility…

Of owing ethical design practices. In stakeholder meetings, in the research-strategy phase, in prototyping – every step of your design process the concept of design ethics must be addressed.

Designers are not in the business of just crafting interfaces & experiences.

They are in the business of establishing meaningful connections between users & businesses. Designers truly hold the helm when it comes to charting the course of where we are headed, as a society.

And every bit of it counts.

From something as simple as how a notification pops up on a device ( colors, emotional triggers, frequency, messaging, tone, emojis, icons & so on) to things with massive repercussions like privacy terms, behavioral changes, data breach & the likes are at the helm of the designers.

These are just some of the stepping stones towards establishing a culture where ethics & design are so closely intertwined that with time they become synonymous. The idea behind becoming an ethical designer is to remove the need of adding the word “ethical”. And current day & age, this is nothing short of a revolution.

Remember, people forget designs that forget people. So go out there and build things that empower others, not imprison them.

Interested in behavioral psychology & how it affects decision-making? Here’s a video for you