Design Process
min read
November 10, 2022
November 3, 2022

Ethics of Design

Ethics of Design
Table of contents

Design is an ever-evolving landscape. It’s grown from strength to strength in the past few years, with more and more people looking to invest time and effort into understanding and utilizing it. While initially it was limited to hoardings, billboards, banners, and the like, the growth of the digital sphere has seen design expand its horizon. It has slowly become a necessity fundamental to people's experiences when interacting with a virtual world. However, the impact of a necessary commodity requires adherence to specific rules and regulations; ethics to ensure everyone has a fruitful experience and equal access to what’s on offer.

Ethics act as a set of unwritten rules that every designer adheres to when designing a product. These rules take into account, business requirements and user needs while ensuring the product is both useful and helpful to society at large.

In this blog, we will be talking about the ethics of design and why it is all the more relevant in today’s day and age.

Why are ethics a necessity in design?

Users consider technology as a way of making things easy in life. Especially in today’s growing digital ecosphere where everyone stays connected and has easy and quick access to important information in the blink of an eye, ensuring all users have access to various outlets that keep them all well informed about the happenings of the world.

While these are all beneficial outcomes of the pervasiveness of technology, at the same time ethical issues with products from largesse companies also demonstrate that if a user puts their trust into a user experience, it is obvious that they would also feel betrayed and disappointed if that very trust is manipulated with.

Ethical design aims to ensure that the experiences being designed for users are not just ethical but also live up to the trust and faith a user places in a company. And with so many things to keep in mind while designing a new product or redesigning an old one, the ethics of different design choices might get missed. Also, ethical considerations aren’t always given due emphasis during UX training programs and business settings, which is why their importance too tends to decrease.

What are design ethics?

Design ethics aren’t the easiest to define. Every individual asked will have a different take on it. However, it can be boiled down to two basic ideas -

  • Design ethics help to demonstrate actions and behaviors that are generally considered acceptable in the profession.
  • Design ethics aid in raising the standards of visual work and presentation.

For users, securing an ethical user experience is validated through the trust a user places in a product and through a sense of feeling good and content about their decision to use it. Even if a user doesn’t realize it, a user experience that is devoid of any form of psychological or emotional discomfort and or exploitation is bound to be more enjoyable.

Thus, it becomes increasingly necessary for UX design to be rooted in the foundation of ethics.

Considerations for ethical design

Chris Kiess in his article in the User Experience Magazine divides UX design into three prime categories. These three categories serve as a framework through which a UX design is able to examine the ethics of the experiences they provide to its users.

Existential values

Abstract image depicting a designer’s individual sense of ethics and concern for the products that they work on and cater to their concept of right and wrong.

Existential values are a result of a designer’s individual sense of ethics and concern for the products that they work on and cater to their concept of right and wrong.

At senior levels, this might require ensuring that the company one works for has goals and values that align with one's own. It also includes the way in which a company wishes to position its offerings. For example, if one worked for a clothing company, then one might feel comfortable with their inclusive approach to ensuring people of color and all shapes or sizes are treated with equal importance. However, the question arises as to how the designer would feel if asked to create sections of an app that clearly differentiates between people of different shapes or sizes or puts out content that discriminates between the two.

This is where UX designers’ individual ethics come into play. They should have a consistent and well-defined system of values and principles that can help to guide them in any and every difficult and questionable situation. It is what ethical design helps to accomplish.

Ill intent

Abstract image depicting ethical lapses

It is the most obvious category when it comes to designing ethical user experiences that contain issues. Designers who focus on business requirements first and then look to create designs, that often exploit and harm the users are often guilty of ethical lapses.

However, like UX designers, businesses too are looking to serve their users. Design patterns that lead someone to spend more time than they would like with a digital product or buy something they don’t intend, might serve a company’s purpose in the short term but fails to improve the relationship between the user and the brand.

For example, dark patterns are often added with the aim of tricking the user. They often lead the user to inadvertently agree on sharing more personal information than planned or the sudden appearance of additional charges in the final checkout process. While it may seem harmless when a design specifies a large and colorful button to accept an app’s terms and conditions but the button to decline it is made small and dark, and its influence on a user's behavior often ends up crossing the ethical line.

Benevolent intent

Abstract image depicting design lapses due to benevolent intent

As UX designers, the prime focus is always on user needs. They tend to let go of temptations related to dark patterns and UI, only to ensure the user is able to freely and easily interact with the product. However, even with the best of intentions, sometimes one may inadvertently end up creating a design that follows through with some or the other ethical issue. These issues primarily occur due to existing design processes within organizations or because there’s difficulty in predicting how a product might be consumed and interacted with, in different real-world situations.

Most of these ethical issues aren’t always evident during the design or development phase. Sometimes they’re not evident to designers, well into the release, which is why it ends up undermining the importance of designing and sustaining an ethical awareness of both their potential impact and existence.

For example, if a design isn’t accessible to all potential users or is selectively serving information based on what is known about a user, it will end up limiting the information the user will be exposed to. While these consequences of well-meaning user experiences are mostly unintended, by being vigilant about ethics throughout the design process, one may be able to minimize these issues a little.

Ethical design helps in taking a step back to pause and reconsider users on a deeper and more intimate level.

Most importantly, even though a design aims to ensure that users return to a product, designers should ensure that it isn’t done because of addictive design patterns. These include and aren’t limited to, exploiting the users’ fear of missing out on using messages regarding what’s happening on an app/website or providing varying rewards and social validation in the form of likes or responses.

Key takeaways

User experience designers must aim to live up to the conviction their user's place in them; by ensuring that their designs always remain ethical. They should try to put the needs of the user before that of business concerns. If a project’s business requirement seems to raise ethical red flags, then a UX designer must question and convince against implementing them.

Existential values stand key to a designer's individual consciousness. However, it is equally important to ensure that the right and wrong of it are well incorporated with the business ethos and user needs of a product. This helps to ensure a consistent balance between business goals and user requirements so that neither is compromised.

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