A UX designer standing in front of a wall with Post-it notes

What Is Ethical Design? Here’s How To Become A More Considerate Designer

Cynthia Vinney

It seems like almost every day we hear about another eye-brow raising ethical dilemma caused by new technologies. From exploiting users’ private information to concerns about fake news, from social media addiction to subtly modifying user behavior, there are many ways for user experiences to cross an ethical line—or at least wade into a moral gray area. UX designers are on the frontlines of these concerns. 

The goal of UX designers should be to champion the needs of their users, including their users’ ethical expectations. However, in the rush to create products that feature sticky experiences that attract users and make clients happy, ethical considerations can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. This is why it’s so important for UX designers to have at least a basic understanding of the things they should consider to make sure the user experiences they design are ethical.

In this article, we’ll cover the following topics:

  1. Why are ethics important in UX design?
  2. Business considerations versus championing users
  3. Three categories of ethics for UX design
  4. Key takeaways

Let’s get started!

1. Why are ethics important in UX design?

Users expect technology to make their lives easier. Today more than ever before, digital products keep us connected, enable us to look up important information in the blink of an eye, and give us outlets to ensure we are informed citizens. These are all valuable outcomes of the ubiquity of technology. At the same time, however, ethical issues with products from companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple demonstrate that when users put their trust in your user experience, they will feel betrayed if that trust is exploited. 

UX designers should strive to make sure the experiences they create for users are ethical and live up to the trust the user is placing in the company. With so many things to consider when designing a new product or redesigning an old one, however, the ethics of different design choices have the potential to be overlooked. Plus, ethical considerations often aren’t emphasized in UX training programs or business settings. 

For users, however, ensuring a user experience is ethical validates the trust users place in a product and helps them feel good about their decision to use it. Even if users don’t realize it, a user experience that doesn’t cause psychological discomfort or exploit then for clicks or personal information is more enjoyable. As a result, it’s increasingly essential that the profession of UX design is rooted in a foundation of ethics. 

2. Business considerations versus championing users

Of course, the digital products users rely on and enjoy are typically created by companies, and part of any company’s goal is to make money. By extension, as a UX designer creating a product for a company, you may feel that your job is to give the company what they want. However, this shouldn’t be an excuse for ethically dubious decisions. 

In a column in UXMatters, Peter Hornsby points out that UX designers shouldn’t blindly accept a project’s business requirements. If they raise an ethical red flag, it’s the UX designer’s job, as the users’ champion, to push back and question the requirements. 

It’s important to acknowledge, however, that UX designers are far from the only team members responsible for the design decisions on a project. Between project managers, art directors, software engineers, other team members, and business stakeholders, designs can and will go through changes big and small throughout a project. The key is for UX designers to make sure their voice is heard at each phase of the process and that they keep an eye on the ethics of the design just as they do every other element of the user experience.

3. Three categories of ethics for UX design

In an article in User Experience magazine, UX designer Chris Kiess divides UX design ethics into three categories. These categories can serve as a framework through which a UX designer can examine the ethics of the experiences they create. 

1. Existential values

Existential values come out of a designer’s own sense of ethics and involve making sure the products a designer works on adhere to their own concept of right and wrong  At the top-most level this might involve making sure you work for a company whose goals and values you share. On the other hand, in many cases this has to do with the way a company positions their products. For example, if you work for a healthcare company, you might be comfortable with their mission of helping sick people get well. However, how would you feel if you were asked you to create an app that encourages doctors to limit the time they spend with their patients, possibly causing them to miss things or alienate the patients who go to them for help? UX designers should have a well-defined system of values that can guide them through difficult ethical situations.

2. Ill or misdirected intent

This is perhaps the most obvious category for ethical user experience issues. Designers who put business requirements first and create designs that exploit or harm their users are clearly guilty of ethical lapses. However, you should keep in mind that just like a UX designer, businesses are ultimately there to serve clients. Design patterns that cause someone to spend more time with a digital product than they’d like or to buy something they don’t want may serve a company’s bottom line in the short term, but they won’t improve the relationship between the company and the client.

For example, dark patterns are design patterns whose goal is to trick the user. These include causing users to inadvertently agree to share more personal information than intended, using wording that shames users for opting out of a purchase (e.g., “No thanks, I don’t want to save money”), or the appearance of additional charges and fees in the final step of a checkout process. It may seem innocuous when your design specifies that the button to accept an app’s terms and condition is large and colorful and the button to decline is small and dark, but its influence on user behavior crosses an ethical line.

3. Benevolent intent

UX designers should always have benevolent intent that puts their users’ needs first. Yet, even when your intentions are good you may inadvertently create a design that has ethical issues. For example, your design may not be accessible to all potential users or it may selectively serve up information based on what’s known about the user, limiting the information they’re exposed to. While these consequences of well-meaning user experiences are unintentional, remaining vigilant about ethics throughout the design process may help minimize these issues. 

Places to look out for the impact of benevolent design include areas where designs make choices for users, designs intended to persuade or modify behavior, and designs that may be addictive. For example, products that ask for a limited amount of information and then serve up information based on a users’ choices may prevent users from finding the information they actually want. So, if a job board promises to email you jobs that match the kind of position you’re looking for, but fails to ask about salary, position level, or location, the information you receive may not be useful. 

Similarly, when governments wanted to ensure more people became organ donors, they changed the program. Instead of requiring people to opt in, they were automatically signed up and had to opt out if they didn’t want to be an organ donor. Needless to say, many more people became organ donors simply because they stuck with the default. While the goal here was positive, was making the decision for people ethical? This can also be applied to any automatically checked boxes included in a user experience.

Finally, although we want users to return to our products, we should make sure they aren’t doing so because we’re using addictive design patterns. These include exploiting users’ fear of missing out with messages about what’s happening on a given app or website, providing variable rewards and social validation in the form of responses or likes, and using autoplay to serve up ads when a website loads or to encourage someone to continue watching a service like Netflix.

4. Ethical design: Key takeaways

Hopefully this overview gave you a good idea of the pitfalls and promise of paying attention to ethics when designing a user experience. To sum up:

  • User experience designers should strive to live up to the trust their users place in them; one way to do this is to ensure their designs are ethical.
  • UX designers should put the needs of the user above business considerations.
  • If a project’s business requirements raise ethical red flags, a UX designer should question and push back against them.
  • There are three broad categories that encompass UX design ethics: existential values, ill or misdirected intent, and benevolent intent.
  • Existential values arise from a designer’s own sense of ethics. UX designers should use their own values to guide their design decisions.
  • Ethical lapses in UX design caused by ill or misdirected intent are often easy to spot. They can include tricking users, causing them to spend more time with a product than they’d like, or leading them to inadvertently share more private information than they intended. These design patterns are called dark patterns. 
  • Even when a UX designer’s intent is benevolent, sometimes ethical issues occur, including limiting information available to a user, making choices for the user, and making designs inaccessible to some users. An understanding of ethics in UX design is important to help minimize these issues.

Now that you know a bit about UX design ethics, you might want to learn more. If so, you’ll find the following articles useful:

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Cynthia Vinney

Cynthia Vinney

Contributer to the CareerFoundry Blog

Cynthia Vinney is a freelance writer, researcher, and designer. She has worked in UX for a number of top interactive firms and advertising agencies performing research and creating designs for major brands. She holds a PhD in media psychology.