Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

The Ethics of UX Design

I have been reading a lot recently about the ethics of design.

These authors make some good points about how designers should be using our problem solving skills to solve some of the bigger problems in the world rather than another app which solves yet another first world problem. Or how we should make sure that we do not use dark patterns within our designs. Or even the fact that if we are very good at our jobs and reduce all the friction and make using these apps and sites so easy and totally frictionless we end up making it too easy for people to lose hours scrolling and watching cat videos.

This is all well and good but I think there are a couple of problems with these arguments.

"I doubt if any designer truly wants to do any of these things or thinks they are good design"

So yes we should be using our problem solving skills to make the world a better place but we also need to make a living. The likelihood that you can find a job working on the really big questions is slim, however there is nothing to stop you at least working for a company you believe in.

My last company allowed commuters in America to buy train tickets and then use the ticket on their phone. It does not sound that big a deal but think of the environmental good this is doing - no more paper tickets; think about how much more accessible this will make travelling for someone with an issue which would make using the ticket machines difficult; and think about the poor New York commuters who can queue for up to an hour every morning just to buy their tickets from these difficult machines - they can buy their ticket from the comfort of their home and have an extra hour in bed.

My current company sell sports equipment and clothing with a deep belief that everyone should be able to enjoy sport for the best price possible. I love running and know how good it can be for your mind and body and so truly believe that anything we can do to help more people engage with sport the better.

Then there is the issue of dark patterns, that thing where we make it hard for you to delete your account, or make it impossible to use the site without signing up for a newsletter that you do not want, or even that endless scroll.

I doubt if any designer truly wants to do any of these things or thinks they are good design, but again we still need to make a living and some companies really do not understand why these designs are bad and will back fire on them. If you are asked to design dark patterns and you cannot educate your company against doing that then you need to look for a new job.

So I would argue that if we created a code of ethics for design, then our employers also need to sign up for it too. As a designer in a company working as part of a team there are often far more things at play than what the designer has done. I have had work changed by the product owner without even talking to me about it because they think there is a small problem which could be easily fixed by XYZ even if there are other things to consider.

I can argue until I am blue in the face, but I only have so much power and if we do not have the time or budget my designs may well be amended, sometimes without my knowledge, and there is not much I can do about it.

After all I cannot just refuse to work on something because I do not agree with what my stakeholders or project owner are asking for. It is going to happen whether I agree or not, unless I can convince them that it really is a bad idea. It is more likely that they will want to test it, so then I have to do two designs - the one I have faith in and the one that they want. Then just pray my design wins.

So while we can work as ethically as possible, for this to truly work we need our employers to sign up too. Seeing as some companies are still working out what UX is and how it can help them I cannot see this happening any time soon. I hope this is different within companies who actually have Heads of Design on the Board, but it would not surprise me to find they have the same problems.

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