The need for ethical design

You may be tempted to skip this episode because ethics isn’t the most exciting topic, but the need for a deeper understanding of ethical design is a huge emerging design trend. In this episode, we will look at two examples that highlight the need for a better understanding of ethical design, the 5 steps you can take to improve your ethical design process and why it needs to be an ongoing investment.

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I started thinking about this after a conversation with Jurgen Spangl at a design leadership dinner in Sydney.

Let’s start by defining what I mean when I say ethical design.
• Not about good and bad (ethics)
• Not about doing right by your customers (ethical practices)
• Not about how people act (code of ethics)
• Its about understanding and thinking about the big and small effects of our work (ethical design)

These types of issues are a byproduct of the maturation of any industry. You move from the ability to create anything, to basic execution, to results driven execution to more complex issues like ethics.

For something like digital design this would look like:
• Basic web deign
• Complex design
• Responsive design
• Responsive data driven design
• Design systems

I think the reason we need to talk about this is because it is become an increasingly important issue because of the proliferation of technology and the way it is bound to our lives can effect in very profound ways.


Pokémon Go:
It’s an amazing mobile game that gives users the chance to feel like Pokémon trainers in the real world. And it’s a business success story making a profit of over $3 billion by the end of 2018 and I still know a ton of people who play it all the time. It’s a fun, simple and pretty innocuous-seeming app you wouldn’t think would have any ethical issues.

But it does and you have probably seen some of this in the news.
• It distracted drivers who were playing while they were driving
• Brought users to dangerous locations in the hopes of catching Pokémon
• Disrupted public infrastructure
• Didn’t seek the consent of the sites it included in the game
• Unintentionally excluded certain neighborhoods many which were populated by racial minorities
• The worst was when Pokémon were released in offensive locations like a poison gas Pokémon in the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.

But there are also more disturbing trends that have far deeper and longer lasting effects. Increasingly the lines between smartphone fantasy and reality are blurring. Along with shifting beauty ideals, is taking a psychic toll which doctors call Snapchat dysmorphia. People want to permanently alter their faces to match what they see in their apps like Snapchat filters. They have become accustomed to seeing their faces in a digitally altered state. They often forget that the images on their smartphone aren’t reality, that there’s a big difference between making a nose or chin look smaller on camera and moving bone or tissue with surgery.

But the fact that there is now a psychological disease named after an app highlights the magnitude of this problem and why I think it is important. And these are just two app that have issues as there are countless more out there that have just as many problems.

Your product already has ethical issues

If you think you don’t need to worry about ethics in your creative process because your product doesn’t have any ethical issues, you’ve probably wrong. You can’t be sure until you’ve taken the time to to look at your product through an ethical lens.

As easy one that comes to mind for me is accessibility – I can’t tell you how many teams I work with where making sure their work adheres to ADA standards is an after thought at best but usually not a part of the process at all. Those teams usually look at ADA work as a chore with no empathy or thought to the how it effects the people who really need it. This about developing the ability to look into the future to see how your work will positively or negatively affect people. We are in a time when ethics needs to become a step like any other in the creative process. You take the time to be sure there are no bugs or mistakes in your design to make sure it is the best it can be.

Ethics is no different – you have to take the time to making products and the people who use them the best they can be. Its no longer about if you can do something it is thinking about if you should do something.

Think ahead / pre-mortem

It’s incredibly obvious but the best way to tackle any problem is at the beginning. This is a two part approach.

The first part is do you have systems and processes in place to identify and correct ethical issues? The second part then how those systems and processes are brought to life in your work. Sit down with your team and talk through what possible problems would make this product an ethical failure. Then work backwards to the root causes of that possible failure to see how you could avoid those risks. What you want to do is to reduce the potential ethical risks enough so that you think you can move forward with the project.

As usual I do a bunch of research to try and find the best thinking out there on the subject and tech ethicist Shannon Vallor has a great list of pre-mortem questions:
• How could this project fail for ethical reasons?
• What would be the most likely combined causes of our ethical failure?
• What blind spots would lead us into those problems?
• Why would we fail to act?
• Why/how would we choose the wrong action?
• What systems, processes, checks, failsafes can we put in place to reduce failure risk?

Break down silos

Siloing is a major source of ethical problems. We have talked before about how for many teams in general a major problem is that they will only think, only as far as the project or goal in front of them. This hinders big picture thinking, innovation, and can be a big reason why ethical problems can happen. The teams are just doing what they are told and as the project moves from the spark of inspiration to the reality of execution things come up, are changed and evolved and with no one watching the big picture because of silos are keeping them from see the bigger problems.

Teams need to ask themselves
• What’s the big picture here and what am I helping to build?
• What contribution is my work making and are there ethical risks I might need to know about?
• If there are risks, are they worth it, given the potential benefits?

Decide what your product’s saying

It’s easy to think that people will only use your products the way we want them to. The way people use it is more like conversation than a set of instructions which is why it is so important to keep customers as the source of truth. It is also why I a huge believer that you need to get out and watch people use your product. You need to see them without guidance, without prompting to see the reality of how your perception matches reality. It’s important because your design is speaking to them and saying something. You probably do it whether you intend them to be or not, putting subtle cues that invite the user to engage with your work in certain ways instead of others. It’s these messages the user is receiving that are saying something and are important.

Teams need to ask themselves
• What could someone infer from the design about how it should be used?
• How do you want people to use it?
• How don’t you want people to use it?
• Do your design choices and affordances reflect these expectations?
• Are you preventing other legitimate uses of the product?

Break your work

The best teams I have been a part of and have seen work will actively try to break their ideas. They try to find the weak spots, and push each other to do better work. You can use a similar concept for ethics. Once we’ve built something you think is in great shape, ask someone to try and break it and prove that it isn’t. This is important because It’s hard to see the flaws in your work when you’ve been close to it a long time – especially if we’re proud of it. That’s why it’s not unheard of for new employees, customers or people who are new to the work to find flaws, bugs, or inefficiencies in their first day on the job. By asking people who haven’t been involved in the work to review it through an ethical lens, you reduce the risk of ethical negligence.

Teams need to ask themselves
• What are the ethical pressure points here?
• Have you made trade-offs between competing values/ideals? If so, have you made them in the right way?
• What happens if we widen the circle of possible users to include some people you may not have considered?
• Is your solution the only one? Is it the best one?

Show your work / post mortem

If you don’t get the right answer, being able to go back through your process is crucial and what post mortems are for. Most post mortem’s are done only to review the process and find inefficiencies that would benefit the company – not the customer. You need to be doing design post mortems to defend the ethical decisions you’ve made. This can be really effective as you can focus on the finished work that’s in a real state and look at it in the cold light of day.

Teams need to ask themselves
• Are there any limitations to this product?
• What trade-offs have we made?
• Does this product risk being misused? If so, what have you done to mitigate those risks?
• Are there any users who will have trouble using this product?
• If so, why can’t we fix this and why is it worth releasing the product, given it’s not universally accessible?
• How probable is it that the good and bad effects are likely to happen?

Ethics is an investment

I’m always amazed at how much money and time companies are willing to invest in culture initiatives, corporate retreats, wellbeing days and who knows what else, but then they won’t spend a penny on ethics. There seems to be a sense that if you are a good person, then you’ll build ethical products, but the evidence overwhelmingly proves that’s not the case. Ethics needs to be something you learn about, build resources and systems to support, recruit for, and incentivize people who invest in it.

It’s also something that needs to be engaged in for the right reasons. You can’t go into this process because you think it’s going to make you money or recruit the best people, because you’ll abandon it the second you find a more effective way to achieve those goals. If your company says they’re taking ethics seriously, ask them how open they are to accepting restraint and accountability. How much are they willing to invest in getting the systems right? Are they willing to get rid of their best performers if those people aren’t conducting themselves the way they should?

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