Ethical Decision Making

“Everybody has a plan until they punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson

This is a quote I think about often. I think it’s really important to have a plan, and I also think that plan is most likely going to fail.

In our conversations around ethics and building an ethical framework, this Mike Tyson quote has been echoing in the back of my mind. Particularly because his answer is in response to a question he received about his upcoming fight with Evander Holyfield–an opponent he ended up loosing his heavy weight title to.

I’ve been thinking about my framework really in the context of working for a company after my time at AC4D. It’s in three parts. First, how can I set myself up for a job, career, or situation where the decisions being made are starting from solid ethical ground.  After a lot of introspection around the companies I’ve worked with or consulted for, I’ve summarized that first step like this:

Ethical Framework 2

When a company has a clear mission (both internally and externally), when they are building products that actually align with that mission, and when the financial incentives are aligned for the customer and the company, I’ve seen that there is a much more stable scenario for ethical decision making.

That’s my plan, knowing that even if I follow that exactly, I’ll be punched in the mouth. So, the second layer of my ethical framework involves weight absolutes on a scale. For example, “this is only harming people-this is only helping people” or “I am designing for one-I am designing for all”.

At the bottom of my framework, and something powering the entire thing is my brain. To make the best decisions, and decisions I personally believe to be ethical, I think a grounding reality is that my brain needs to be operating at its highest possible level. Mental health, physical health, and a commitment to constantly learning feed my brain at its best.

An abstraction of my framework as it currently stands:

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A future mindset for design ethics

“Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” – Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine

I consider myself a futurist. As an educator, I couldn’t help but become one when I began to understand the way that my work in the present shaped tomorrow as my students continued to change the world in big and small ways. Each small step–teaching someone to tie a knot, find the standard deviation of a set, or how to debug code, was an investment in our shared future. Knowledge I shared with a student might be practiced immediately, but it also built a foundation for a life of exploration, curiosity, kindness and confidence. Although I never taught a course called “How to Change the World,” I realized I was doing exactly that.

James, an outdoor education student who savored every opportunity to cook group meals with me over our tiny backpacking stoves, now owns a restaurant and butcher shop in Oklahoma City. Our course was his first chance to take care of other people by preparing delicious meals at the end of a long day. Alex, a software engineering student who struggled with concepts that her peers grasped easily, is now an engineer at Apple. I coached her extensively on cultivating a growth mindset and tackling impostor syndrome. Those tools must have been as important as her engineering skills when interviewing for her current role.

The futurist mindset that inspired my work as an educator has developed further as a design student. As I conceive of the work we are doing as students and imagine future design work creating the world that I want to live, I am both excited and a little afraid. Every single beautiful or awful aspect of our society that exists today is the byproduct of choices made by individuals. As such, I am mindful to wield my influence with not only a sense of responsibility, but also empathy and compassion.

While some of the biggest challenges of our time may seem beyond our ability to solve, I know that we are creating the future every minute. When developing an ethical framework to support my work as a designer, I wanted to balance a sense of caution with optimism. My framework is impact-oriented, but also acknowledges our inability to perfectly estimate the outcomes of our work. In building my framework I attempted to include aspects that acknowledge our place in history and the potential future impacts of our work. Ultimately, I decided that a futurist mindset was best addressed not by having specific elements of the framework speaking to timescale, but by embedding ethical review as a practice that needs to be repeated at intervals in order to combat the limits of our ability to see into the future.

I have tried out my framework at multiple inflection points of a single company. In the past 15 years they’ve been known by several names, Ploom, Pax or Juul, but the two founders have remained throughout. They were two product design students who met at the Stanford d.school, learning many of the same things that I am learning now. And all that thoughtful and empathetic design practice and prototyping led them to design a product that has reversed decades of trends in nicotine addiction amongst teenagers. I wanted to explore their story through an ethical framework to better understand how well-meaning, intelligent designers could end up creating such a destructive product.

My primary conclusion is that the two founders, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, were like the proverbial boiled frog who slowly perished as the water got warmer cooking him without ever realizing his peril. The product vision at the outset, a harm reduction product for current smokers was benign, but not riskless. What eventually resulted was a product optimized for addiction and unleashed with sexy marketing targeted at young people that was ultimately acquired by the largest tobacco company in the world. I imagine that at the outset, James and Adam would not have predicted this outcome. When I consider what went wrong, I can’t overlook the limits of the two founders to anticipate the outcome of their choices in 2005 when they were students starting this company as a student project.

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While our ability to anticipate outcomes declines as we peer further into the future, the consequences of our actions can grow ever greater.

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Does that mean that those destined to be good ancestors are people capable of great foresight? Or are they just lucky that their high-impact decisions ended up having positive outcomes?

Although both of those are possibilities, the way that we best position ourselves to be good ancestors is by course-correcting throughout our journeys, to stop, reflect, reevaluate and change course when needed. Our imperfect ability to see the future can be augmented by planning times of reflection into our project timelines and into our personal and professional lives.

Arriving at My Ethical Framework

When we started this Ethics class, I was really thankful for the opportunity to explore not only existing ethical frameworks but also my own values. I’ve never taken space to really think about what I value as a person and how those values impact my decisions. I’m a logical reasoner and a gut-check verifier — so I definitely (over)think my decisions often, but those are mostly rooted in facts rather than values.  

As a conflict-avoidant person, I also rarely debate issues and this class has challenged us to confront risks and challenges of ethical issues. It’s by recognizing this tension that I’ve been able to get more clarity on my stronger values and motivations. 

Below I’m going to walk through the process of arriving at my ethical framework along with tools and resources that I regularly referenced. 

The Process

Identifying My Values. Before we threw ourselves in the deep-end of ethics, we took the time to meditate on what matters most to us. Through a Personal Drivers exercise from Pivot (a delightful activity for an afternoon), I uncovered a few values that matter most to me: gratitude, growth, collaboration, courage, mindfulness, independence, and grit. These drivers served as a foundation for the rest of the course.

Understanding foundations. We also took the time to understand popular existing ethical frameworks and why those resonate. Understanding the basics of consequentialist, non-consequentialist, and agent-centered theories also primed us to understand both what a framework is and different modes of thinking about ethics. 

Applied ethics. Over the last 6 weeks, we’ve continued to apply these existing ethical frameworks to issues of today. As we read about issues like dark patterns, privacy and consent, and technology addiction, I took note of the ethical questions that arose. For example, when reading about technology addiction, this quote from B.J. Fogg, the father of behavioral design, really stuck with me:

“What I always wanted to do was un-enslave people from technology.” 

I asked myself: how can I work this into my framework? How can I ensure that as a designer I am fostering relationships, connection, and giving power to the user?

Ethical-Framework-In-Progress

Synthesizing inspiration.  With dozens of questions in the margins of my readings and notes from class, I tried to make sense of what ideas have been resonating with me over the past quarter. 

I also referenced existing designer’s ethical frameworks to see if there were any blind spots in my thinking. Examples from Design Ethically, Artefact, and Kat Holmes provided inspiration and expanded my view to consider the system in which I operate as a designer, not just my personal values. 

I paired down my questions to key ideas, affinitized those, and ultimately came up with a framework that leans on usage, power, and equity as the main 3 pillars with history and ecosystem as a foundation. 

Power

This graphic is a digestible abstraction of my ethical framework. Each of these themes has corresponding questions, and all of those questions are also considered through a lens of time and scale. 

Looking Forward

One of the core values reflected in my framework is the idea of promoting shared experiences. How can we create products and services that counteract filter bubbles, polarization, and disconnection? 

With this foundation of connection in mind, my most important task moving forward is to be able to weave these ethical questions throughout my every day to help create a shared language with my network. I don’t want to be in a high castle of ethics. I want to make artifacts that can be easily shared and consumed to promote more of these conversations.  I still feel like I’m at the peak of the complexity curve with my framework, so my challenge to my future self is to continue distilling these ideas into something I can quickly reference and share.

Creating an Ethical Framework

Throughout this quarter, we have been tasked with creating an ethics framework that will guide us our decisions as designers. This has been no easy feat. There is no universal set of ethics, and almost every decision of importance requires trade-offs. Even when you think you are designing something that benefits everyone, there is the possibility that your design will have unintended effects or be co-opted and used for nefarious purposes by others. The field of design is strewn with such cases, whether it be Airbnb giving hosts the agency to choose their guests (resulting in discrimination) or Cambridge Analytica adopting algorithmic prediction software to sway political elections.

Ethics can be considered from various approaches, and two in particular inform this framework: the consequentialist Common Good Approach, which stipulates that good actions should consider and benefit the whole of society, with consideration for the most vulnerable; and the non-consequentialist Rights Approach, which determines good by evaluating the impact of an action on the rights of those affected by it, emphasizing that people never be treated as means to an end.

The Framework I have created was influenced by earlier models I’ve created, the Star of Good Design and the Identity Rainbow. These ethical approaches and previous studies, culled from readings and discussions on design patterns, privacy and identity, and emerging technology, inform the basis of my logic and the nature of my questions.

An Ethical Framework

The dark red questions are open-ended. If you find yourself in the bottom right corner (For whom?) you should reflect and return to the Am I okay with this? box above, then proceed to the agency question. This is a work in progress.

When facing the benefits and drawbacks of an ambiguous situation (or in all scenarios, really), consider the following questions:

Framework Questions

I’ve used this model on a few different scenarios. For example, imagine a health organization operates an app that provides reminders to take medicine and menus of daily meal options that meet nutritional value goals. The organization would now like to encourage people to exercise more. 

You have been asked to design a request asking users to create an exercise regimen every time they receive their medication reminder or set up a meal plan. This notification cannot be turned off, and must be declined each time. The organization thinks that, with enough prodding, users will eventually create a plan, and that they will ultimately be thankful once they set it up. 

If I follow my framework, I will eventually get to the question of whether this causes unintended harm. It very well could: annoying reminders could persuade users to stop using the app altogether, and they would no longer have access to the medication reminders and meal plans. So I would have to ask myself additional questions and determine the severity of the situation and what options I have to influence it.

I would proceed in the following way:

  1. I would make an argument as to why I think this is a bad idea and pitch alternatives.
  2. If unsuccessful in my efforts, I would ask if I could be reassigned from the project.
  3. If I had to, I would work on the project. There would be drawbacks to implementation, but also benefits. The drawbacks are not significant enough to quit the position.

I believe that this sort of reasoning must be employed when making ambiguous decisions. For example, if I were asked to craft a deceptive terms and conditions acceptance protocol, I would protest, but ultimately acquiesce if necessary, assuming that the terms are not more dangerous than industry standards. Since people are already used to sharing private information online, it would not be worth losing my job to try to change one company’s protocol. 

But let’s return to the hypothetical health organization above. Imagine that the next initiative was to obtain users’ medical records, so that the app could make  tailored meal plan recommendations based on their health conditions. I would not work on this project. Combining medical records with shopping behaviors could result in discriminatory action by health insurers and government agencies, if they were to obtain this information. By storing this data together, I would be creating existential risk for our users.

In the end, my takeaway is as follows:

Consider the ramifications of your work. Consider your responsibilities to yourself and to others. Seek outside input. Stand up for your values. Do no deliberate harm.

Again, this framework is a work in progress. If you have thoughts and would like to provide feedback or engage in conversation about the limits of this model, please email me at sean.redmond@ac4d.com. I would love to hear from you.

Branded by an Ethical Framework

Throughout the quarter in Ethics, we have been building out an ethical framework as a means to test and check problem scenarios to, now and in the future. Getting to this point has been pretty challenging, it’s often felt like a dump of ideas, starred notes, and ethereal situations that are hard to ground in real life. I needed a way to bring these ideas together and build the rough draft of what should be my ethical framework as a designer for the future, and to do that I revisited a concept that I was familiar with.

I have always enjoyed branding and logo design, and thought the idea of attaching an ethical framework to a brand could be a powerful message. What if all of the brands we know shared the sub-structure of decision making that went into new product launches and deployments? I think some companies already wear a lot on their sleeve, but a mission statement is not the same as the thought process behind development. This is probably because a lot of the decisions that we throw at the framework may run counter to the idea of capitalism.

This is not to sound anti-capitalistic, but I do believe there is a level of greed and a myopic view towards investor earnings reports that has pushed ethics to the side. So what if a company was built around ethics in the first place? Would that change our expectations as consumers, and what about as investors? It’s an idea I want to continue to tease out throughout the remainder of my time at AC4D, but this seemed like a prime opportunity to think about it at a deeper level.

To explain the brand quickly, it is an idea that I have carried in my head for some time as a way to represent myself. The letters KNGSN are pronounced king-son or king-sun. This derives from two things, the idea that we are all beholden to the sun to survive. It makes the grass grow and the world go round, literally. The other half is that my father’s name is Kingsley and he goes by King, so I am King’s son. I couldn’t decide which spelling so I did the cool hipster thing and took out all the vowels. The icon represents a king’s crown and also a rising sun. I didn’t think of this solely for this presentation, it’s something I have worked on in the past, but this seemed like a great opportunity to put it to use.

For the rest of this blog post, I’m going to talk through the steps that I took to arrive at this framework, and hit on a few areas I feel are important to me.

Framework Presentation

Like I said earlier, trying to pull my cavalcade of ideas seemed a bit daunting. I had dug through my notes and found points of interest and quotes that spoke to me and tried to find a way to position them that made sense. I did a lot of digging around for existing architectures that inspired me, and found many good examples along with a few not so much.

Framework Presentation (1)

I experimented with different diagrams, thinking about how to work what was essentially a series of gut check questions, into an order that made sense. One idea that stood out was thinking about it through the phases of design. I tried categorizing the questions into areas like concept development, prototyping, and launch. It seemed decent, but it was not resonating with me, as some of it felt forced into a bucket that maybe wasn’t right.

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So instead, I fell back on the branding, and put that at the center. The mantra “keep your island beautiful” lives below it,, which is a personal saying I like to reference to think about problems from a micro to a macro level. Your island can be your mind or your body, something you need to take care of to be in the right head space for design. Your island can also expand, being maybe your office desk, or  your house, something you care about and want to maintain. Further than that, your island becomes  your community, your state, your country. Moving outwards, we should start to share this compassion we gave to ourselves and spread it to others. Ultimately, our world is an island that we are all inhabitants of, and thinking globally through design is necessary when we view things through time and scale.

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After that, I took the highlights of the quarter and re-wrote them onto post-it notes and found themes between them or general sentiments they were conveying. This allowed me to think of aspects as self-reflecting, as well as projecting ideas outwards. I created the groups Present-Past-Future for myself, and Create-Grow-Plan-Reflect to project. It helped me to ground myself with a statement, to understand the location in the framework before asking questions. All of this came together in what is my current framework, but surely not the last edit of it.

Framework v2_v4-04

Looking ahead, I want to run more scenarios of what a startup company might look like if it followed a framework form the beginning, and especially if it put that framework out open to the public. I believe it would make for more accountability, more transparency, and a deeper connection to the products we buy and use. It would build trust and alignment, and in theory a more loyal customer base.

One thing I have taken away from this quarter of ethics is that having these conversations is important, and good to share with others outside of the design community. It is something we need to keep front of mind, and not let it slip away or just be lazy about. I believe, lack of attention is equal to bad intention.

My personal ethical decision-making process

Thinking of our personal ethical decision-making is hard, although we make ethical decisions every day, like for example, do I creep up over the speed limit because it is to my convenience? Or should I buy somewhere I know their employees are poorly payed? We go each day without thinking about these ethical decisions we make, because they are small and hurt people in an insignificant or small way. But what when we think of big, wicked problems, then the ethical decisions are almost impossible to decipher.

I felt lost at the beginning of this assignment and to be honest I am still pretty lost, ethics is much more than just doing your readings and your homework, it’s also diving deep into your feelings and what the gut tells you, which apparently, I am not so good at, but it’s just a muscle we have to start training.

With all of this confession I will start by saying that my process was eternal and things just didn’t make sense. But at the end what helped me the most, was thinking about problems that I have thought about in my design project with our partner Caritas of Austin, we worked with them for about four months. Our main focus was to understand how caritas was delivering clients goals (if you want to know more about this project, click here). Without going into any details, we learned about ECHO, Coordinated Entry provides a single doorway for people to walk through to access many different community resources.  The Coordinated Entry team develops, implements, and oversees a system that connects individuals experiencing homelessness to housing supports and other services like healthcare. They use a vulnerability index tool to prioritize individuals and families most in need of housing services. To me, the biggest issue when interviewing individuals experiencing homelessness is that the ones that can advocate by themselves are not being helped, however the most vulnerable need help the most, I always felt uncomfortable with this idea because we are leaving people with desire to grow professional and personal behind.

My ethical framework has 9 different steps that in any occasion where I feel uncomfortable like in that case, I can do the steps to figure out what is bothering me and have a call to action.

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With this ECHO problem and my super incredible ethical decision-making framework, I can now figure out other alternatives that could work to have a more just support system.

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Case Study: Service Design for Austin Parks Foundation

For a city with a culture so devoted to fitness and green spaces, Austin parks are surprisingly underfunded. APF attempts to bridge the gap between what park users need and what the city is able to provide through fundraising, volunteering, and events.

APF’s strategic vision includes increasing awareness of their organization in the community, diversifying funding streams, and improving the ranking of Austin parks nationally. We worked with them to develop design criteria that would support these goals in ways that were aligned with their mission, “People + Parks,” and supports their organizational commitment to equity.

View our website to learn more about our process and our design criteria for future program design and implementation: www.ac4dxapf.org

Redesigning the City of Austin’s Small Business Program

Man with Classes

This is the final part of an ongoing research project that aims to understand how people navigate the City of Austin’s Small Business Program services and how they get value from the system. Our research began with PeopleFund, a community lender, and expanded in its scope as we learned more about the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Preliminary themes from our research can be found in part 2, our service slice evaluation can be found in part 3, and information on insights gathered can be found in part 4.

After four months spent researching the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, this project concludes with design criteria aimed to improve the City of Austin’s Small Business Program.

My research has led me to conclude that the Small Business Program does not holistically prepare entrepreneurs to launch a business. Although everyone I spoke to appreciated the wealth of resources the city makes available, many found it difficult to navigate the path to actually getting their first customers. In addition, there are key skills that the Small Business Program does not promote, such as confidence in public speaking, that could benefit small business owners. Networking contributes significantly to business success, and this is one area in which the city can focus on to help strengthen entrepreneurial skills.

For a full summary of the research and a look at the design criteria I’ve created, please visit my website.

 

At what point do extremist views become a danger to society?

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https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611807/this-is-what-filter-bubbles-actually-look-like/

The graph above represents how the polarization looks even more extreme when the accounts are plotted according to their “valence,” a measure of how politically homogeneous their connections are. A valence of 0 means an account follows or is followed only by progressive accounts, while 1 means it’s connected only to conservative accounts. The center is called “The silence of the center” because the center of the political universe is far quieter than the polarized wings. This plot of average daily tweets (vertical axis) from the network seen in the charts above shows that the extreme partisans on both sides are screaming while the center whispers.

Although this graph only talks about politics, we can see that in the extremes, people are more actively creating, consuming and spreading views and content reflecting their point of view. The question that I wanted to post for myself is, at what point do extremist views become a danger to society?

To start, I will commence by explaining what is filter bubbles. The term “filter bubbles” refers to the results of the algorithms that dictate what we encounter online. According to Eli Pariser, those algorithms create “a unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.”

I made a graph that represents in the ‘x’ on the left, we have the moderate thinkers and, on the right, we find the radical thinkers. On the ‘y’ axis on the bottom a wide filter bubble and on top a narrow filter bubble. I also divided the graph by four quadrants which describe four different ways that people use their views. The idea of this diagram was to understand how dangerous each quadrant could be. If you put together a group of people with radical point of views, with narrow filter bubbles and you add to that personalized ads, vulnerable targeting and propaganda, there is where it can become dangerous. But who has the fault? who can do something about it?

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What we talk about when we talk about ethics

Look no further from the morning briefing roll calls under the header TECH, and you’ll find articles on how oil data is the new tech gold rush; how China is using facial recognition technology to monitor and persecute it’s Uighur citizens, a religious minority; how automation threatens to widen the poverty gap.

Ethics feels like a big word for big ticket items. We can easily look to broad issues where there is a clear need for ethical consideration but I think ethics is the stuff of everyday life. If I were going to put that into designer speak, I might say ethics are embedded in interaction. See what I did there?

Often we think of ethics in micro and macro extremes. Micro: as a private, internal matter – a standard we hold ourselves against. Macro: as a BIG E question of life and death – who am I going to kill by the lever of a train? What’s missing from both of those extremes is the space in which we discuss the activity around making ethical decisions, something I’ll refer to as situational ethics.

The framework I shared in my last blog post felt, and is, incredibly personal. When I tried holding it against a question or an issue, it felt difficult to understand how I might apply this without the grappling being in the context of decision making with other people. Which brings me around to the situations in which we will be having these conversations – the workplace.

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Why it Matters

Earlier this month, there was a post to Medium from 12 employees of color within Facebook who had gathered together stories about the racist behaviors and actions being taken against them.

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 11.32.39 PMHow does this happen? Where are the colleagues? Why are they failing each other? If we aren’t addressing workplace ethics, how can we expect to have truthful conversations around ethics in the hypothetical or abstract? We need to create more capacity in our workplace to have supportive, dialed in conversations around ethics in that environment.

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Dynamic Scaffolding 

I want the function of the  framework to be one of support – to help me maximize the potential for growth and truth within those engagements. My framework, then, needs to have dynamic scaffolding to support how I might approach these steps in practice, at work.

Leaning into strategies I’ve learned over the last two quarters, as well as techniques I’ve tried during group facilitations, I can see how these could be used to ground, frame, and develop workplace conversation around ethics – to better explore and understand why we are putting something into the world and where intention vs impact come into conflict.

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Being Grounded Leaders

Resmaa Menakem is a therapist, licensed social worker, and police trainer and consultant who specializes in trauma work, addressing conflict, and body-centered healing. He writes about the generational trauma that white bodies, black bodies, and police bodies have inherited and how, often times, people go to a therapist to be around a grounded body. To experience what it means to be grounded in the world.

An ethical center is something that grounds me. It grounds my decision making, it grounds the way I lead, it grounds the way I participate in conversation. If I’m not actively and regularly bringing ethics into practice within my workplace, how can I expect to have conversations around power/privilege, risk/consequence, time/scale with those same decision-making teams?

From a credibility standpoint, if we’re going to be, not just designers but design strategists capable of being a touchpoint across entire organizations, I need to ensure that I’m addressing these questions:

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