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When Ethical Problems Arise in Tech, Design is an Important Safeguard

Product designs have a huge impact on how consumers interact with an app and with each other. Here's how to go about it ethically.

Words by Lexi Namer, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Sáenz

As designers, we have a unique power and opportunity to shape the products before they get to market. But as Eva Penzey-Moog says in Designing for Safety, products often get created to be used in an ideal environment by the ideal customers.

We pride ourselves on being empathetic and human-centered, but there is a common misconception that it also accounts for harm. Human-centered design does not automatically mean that designs are also ethical.

The intersection of ethics and tech

Ethics—the rules of conduct that are used to identify what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior—are created on both a personal and communal level and there can be tension between the two.

Some ethical problems are rampant in the tech industry. Tech has been built on a culture of moving fast and breaking things and designers are pressured to build faster and faster, getting to market as quickly as possible and scaling rapidly at all costs. We are now witnessing the fallout of that practice in a number of companies that entered the market and scaled with little oversight on how they could be used harmfully.

An example I often use is a medical app designed to help healthcare providers better track patient care. The product may be human-centered by meeting the needs of the healthcare providers, but doesn’t necessarily ensure that patients' privacy isn’t going to be abused.

As designers, we need to not only be human-centered, but also ethically-centered.

Lexi Namer
Independent Designer and Developer

Design and ethics grow into the mainstream

While I’ve always known about ethics, I never stopped to think how it might intersect with my work as a designer. One day, I was chatting with a good friend who worked as a product designer at a financial company. She made a comment that after working on a consumer-facing product for nearly four years, the topic of ethics had only come up just that week.

We started trying to unpack what it meant to design ethically. For me, this is when the lightbulb went off, and I started trying to understand ethics for my own practice as well as injecting these themes and conversations into design courses that I taught.

Some incredible designers and organizations have been involved in design ethics for years and the topic is becoming increasingly talked about within the design community. Trine Falbe is one of those designers, and in January 2022, she launched the Ethical Design Network (EDN), a global community for designers to share, discuss, and educate on ethical design. It spread widely and has quickly grown to over 800 members in just eight months.

I met Trine after joining the EDN Slack group and got involved as an organizer for the network. I started curating a bi-weekly async discussions surrounding a topic in ethical design in order to foster thought, ideas, and conversation with like-minded designers interested in being more ethically centered.

After a couple of months of some thought-provoking discussions, I noticed some emerging themes and synthesized all of the comments. From that synthesis, I identified four key topic areas:

  • Definition and categorization
  • Education and awareness
  • Measurement and success
  • Responsibility and accountability

For the next discussion, I prompted everyone to talk about which of these areas is the most pressing. Education and awareness was unanimously identified as being critical for getting ethics into the forefront mainstream design conversation and aligned with my findings that ethics are missing from the design classroom.

How are we expected to be ethically-centered designers without knowledge and training on a language and framework for designing ethically?

Lexi Namer
Independent Designer and Developer

Centering the conversation around harm

Because the topic of ethics is broad and multifaceted, I like to frame it in the context of reducing harm. While we all have diverse ethical compasses, our goal should be to design products that do the least amount of harm as possible. Harm can generally be categorized into six types and all of these can occur in a physical or virtual environment.

  • Physical harm
  • Sexual harm
  • Verbal or emotional harm
  • Mental or psychological harm
  • Financial or economic harm
  • Cultural or identity harm

As designers, there are intended and unintended harmful outcomes that can happen as a result of our work. Deceptive design patterns are intentional, carefully crafted interfaces in a website or app that trick or shame someone into doing something they wouldn’t normally do.

Some incredible designers and researchers have been working in this space for years, and UX designer Harry Brignull started a campaign against deceptive design in 2010.

Most of the time, we are not designing with mal-intent, but fail to anticipate and account for the ways that our designs can be abused. Combating this involves intention, a critical eye, and not being too precious with our work in fear of iteration or throwing something out. There are two primary actors within digital products that can cause harm: the technology itself and the people using them.

Harm within technology

Within the technology itself, some prevalent issues are data privacy, facial recognition, algorithmic bias, and addiction. All of these are designed—and can and should be designed better—but involve the relationship between technology and the person using it.

There are imbalanced power dynamics at play between those who create products and those who consume them. As designers, we need to critically examine and account for all of the ways that our designs and technology might lead to harm.

This involves:

  • Taking a more active role in understanding the data and technology that will power our designs
  • Speculating on how they might lead to harm
  • Trying to mitigate some of it within the design

Harm between people

Harm between people can occur when a product is misused by someone, whether maliciously or by accident. One of the biggest ways that this can manifest is in products where people are creating and publishing content, commonly seen within social media and games. This crowded source content can lead to false information, deep fakes, power imbalances, trauma, lack of safety, and mistrust.

A great example is the mobile game, Pokemon Go. Released in 2016 by mobile app company Niantic, the game blended the physical and virtual worlds, allowing players to chase virtual Pokemon around real cities using smart phones and augmented reality.

Much of the content was consumer-generated, and in one instance, led people to to the US Holocaust Museum, where the game featured a Pokemon that emitted a poisonous gas inside an auditorium showing testimonials of gas chamber survivors. This was highly problematic and led to outcries from citizens and the museum to remove the insensitive and harmful content.

Where we go from here

As ethical design is gaining more traction within the industry, many books, articles, and discussions are happening around these topics. Additionally, an abundance of tools and frameworks have emerged to help designers inject ethics into their practices. These resources have been developed by individuals and companies, but are often underutilized, understudied, and unknown across the broader design industry. This is due in part to them being developed in silos with no centralized repository of when and how they can and should be used.

Additionally, a group of researchers found that 44% of 63 surveyed methods were published in academic journals that are frequently inaccessible due to paywalls, further siloing these tools from the very industry they are designed for.

While I was keeping an internal spreadsheet of resources and several other designers were doing the same, I realized there wasn’t a single central repository to house this wealth of information. I designed and built Ethical Design Resources, an online, crowd-sourced repository to begin to curate all of the ethical design resources in a single place.

So where do we go from here, and what can you do to learn more about ethical design? The conversation is just getting started and there is still a ton of work, education, and research to be done. The biggest opportunity is to educate ourselves and future designers about the importance of ethics and identifying harm within our work, and here are some ways to get started.

  • Join the global Slack group on the Ethical Design Network
  • Educate yourself on some of these topics by exploring Ethical Design Resources
  • Create a set of ethical values to constantly check your designs against
  • Discuss harm, ethics, and unintended consequences early and often with your team
  • Try out some of the existing tools (here is a template for a modified version of Black Mirror Brainstorming that Elyse Girard and I have been workshopping at conferences)
  • Spread awareness of ethical design by having conversations in your design network

If you’re already doing this work, trying any of the tools, or have other thoughts around ethical design, I’d love to connect.

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Lexi is a designer, developer, and educator passionate about creating ethical and beautiful products for the digital space. She currently leads the design team at the software agency Echobind and is working on her doctorate at North Carolina State University, focused on the intersection of design, ethics, and education. 

To learn more about Lexi and her work, check out her website

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