How to Be an Ethical Designer – In Practice

When talking about design, and the techniques that designers use, it’s almost impossible to leave the topic of ethics out of the conversation. Designers are able to create useful products, systems, and interactions by intimately understanding the way humans operate. Good designers go beyond understanding what a person does, and they understand why that person does what they do, how they feel when they do it and even why they feel that way. That understanding can lead to some really great solutions to big problems. But, it can also lead to opportunities for manipulation of the user.

In our Design Ethics class, we have been exploring what it means to create ethical design. There really isn’t any universal right or wrong in ethics, and design doesn’t have a formal code of ethics, so it is up to each designer to make these ethical decisions on their own.

This class is giving us an opportunity to explore ethical questions, and to build an ethical framework for ourselves of what we personally believe to be ethical. I’m still processing a lot of what I’ve learned over the last couple of weeks, but something that keeps coming to mind for me is the connection between building a framework and then implementing that framework.

At AC4D, we are studying this information in great detail, so the conversations we are all having about ethical design are with others who are educated on and interested in the topic. And that’s certainly valuable. But in May, that’s over. I hope to have a job lined up by then, and most likely I’ll be walking into a business environment where few, if any, of my colleagues are educated in or even aware of the ethical impact design can have. I’ll be armed with my personal framework by then, but I think the hardest part is going to be communicating the value of those ethical decisions in a way that someone else will understand or even care.

This is further compounded by the fact that many dark patterns in design actually do benefit the business, at least in the short term. They trick people into spending more time on a website or buying more product. I wanted to explore how I might be able to communicate my own ethical boundaries when faced with an environment where I’m the only one thinking about these choices through an ethical lens.

To do so, I’ve called on my previous profession as a nonprofit fundraiser. In fundraising, your end goal is to raise money for an organization. At my last organization, our mission was to place post-9/11 military veterans into industry careers. All of the money that is raised goes directly toward that mission, but people give for lots of different reasons. Some people give because they had directly benefitted from our program, while others gave because they knew they wanted to give back to their local community, and we were able to provide them with solid stats on our success rate to convince them that we were a good investment.

These different temperaments are usually referred to as the  “7 Faces of Philanthropy”.

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This framework really helped me in fundraising because I had my own reasons for caring about our mission to help military veterans, but communicating why I cared wasn’t always going to resonate with people. I would have to meet them where they were most interest and communicate with them that way.

I’ve incorporated this way of thinking into the ethical framework I’m building, and have started to think about how I will communicate my personal ethics in a way that makes sense and matters to future colleagues. Understanding those colleagues and their motivations will allow me to speak with them about these ethical topics but in a language that makes sense to them.

This is a potential group of colleagues, and an attempt at understanding what they might care about most:

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Using this as a tool, I can come up with scenarios with ethical implications and see how to best communicate my concerns with this wide variety of colleagues. For example, let’s say I work for a company that is sending a massive amount of emails and not giving a clear way for users to unsubscribe from those emails. To simply say “I don’t think this is ethical because we aren’t giving our users any agency to make decisions about whether or not they want to receive these emails” I think a better approach would be to meet my colleagues where they are. For the lawyer who is constantly evaluating risk for the company, it might be updating him on the recent LinkedIn case, and letting him know that this type of behavior is starting to create some real legal issues for companies. For the founder of this company, it might be the money he stands to loose by a drop off in frustrated customers. I could encourage him to give his customers more agency with the emails and take a more long term approach. The better his customer retention is the more money he can make in the long run.

Over the rest of the quarter, I’ll be continuing to build my own ethical framework, while at the same time thinking about how to best communicate these topics with a future colleague who has no background in this way of thinking.