UX & Ethics

usability
ux

#1

Sorry guys, but this one’s going to get heavy. I’m developing a blog post over some of the discussion I’ve seen over the Ethics of UX in different forums and dragging in some of my observations over what sorts of roles are available based on my job search.

Coming from the human factors specialist side, I know that HFES has a professional code of ethics, but I don’t know if our various groups actually discuss it much.

We exist as a hybrid field, but many of the fields from which we come (Engineering, Psychology, etc.) have binding codes of ethics. As user advocates, we see much more of the impact on others and depend on developing empathy. However, we also create tools with a wide impact on people from all walks of life and frequently have access to behavioral triggers which can drive users to interact with products in maladaptive ways.

I have a few starter questions for everyone:

  • What are your thoughts on the responsibilities of a UX Researcher / Designer?

  • What should all UX professionals should be held to, and what should individuals at least strongly consider?

  • Have you consciously decided on a particular ethical standard for yourself? If so, how do you communicate it and what impacts has it had on your career?

  • Are there lines of work which are distinctly problematic for UX professionals to participate in?

  • What are your favorite resources on the topic?


#2

I’m new to the field but love seeing that you’re bringing this up as a topic of discussion. As I read more about UX and consider the impact it has on people, I’m realizing how impactful it is and how important it should be to bring ethical considerations into discussion frequently and consistently. Hope to see many replies added to this thread and to follow along!


#3

Brilliant topic! I’m going to loop in some likely candidates to share their thoughts.


#4

Brilliant topic, @treyroady.

For me, knowing how my ethics affect my design work is the foundation for how I build trust with, and value for, the customers and people using the products I help create.

Within design teams I’ve been clear about my role as an advocate for those people, and have not yet experienced any major issues—perhaps because I’ve also been selective about the type of work I’ll participate in—something that freelancers or business leaders have more influence on than employees, I guess. Many years ago I left a business partnership in part because of their desire to work with a sports gambling client.

While tobacco and gambling may be frequently pegged in discussions like this, I personally think there is potential for any business to lose sight of a personal connection and the broader or longer-term consequences that may lead to. It’s also common to see people differentiating between business and personal ethics (“It’s just business”) which I think is dangerous.

Working through Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World was helpful in articulating my own stance on design ethics—and beyond; into the crux of why I am a designer.

I was really pleased to read Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s Design for Real Life that was published last year. For me, it is a personal and practical examination of why good design is essential.

Design businesses such as Studio Thick were founded based on principles described in books like The New Capitalist Manifesto. Some businesses measure and communicate their ethics by becoming a Certified B Corporation.

At a recent UX bookclub here in Melbourne we read Nir Eyal’s ‘Hooked’ about how to build habit forming products, and enjoyed a contentious discussion. And related, @gerry helpfully recommended Adam Alter’s ‘Irresistable’ about why we can’t stop checking scrolling, clicking and watching, as a less sensationalist read. I’m still working my way through it.


#5

thanks @treyroady
this topic is super interesting to me.

some years ago I declined an offer for joining a gambling company too.
I would do the same declining job roles for some brands that I don’t like at all, especially in terms of environmental impact.
Despite that, I do believe that such choice, at least for me, is not related to my profession but is more attached to the values I believe in.

Where I feel the ethical topic, for instance, is in designing solutions that pretend to help the user and in reality they just want to grab data (eg emails, mobile numbers etc) to make money on it.

What I want to say is that, as a designer, I’d like to be part of a process for building a product that makes user engaged and satisfied. Everything is not functional to reach such goals should be carefully considered from the ethical POV.


#6

A UX Designer should be focused on making the world easier and more user-friendly. It’s a bit like camping really-- everything we touch, we should leave better than when we found it.

It’s important that UX Professionals keep the benefit of the user in-mind at all times. This is a core tenant of our work, and one that often gets overlooked when we are asked or persuaded to create gray or dark patterns.

I don’t have a particular ethical standard, per se, in large part because the employers I’ve worked with have been very good about focusing on positive customer experiences. I would refuse to create any overtly dark pattern UX, but I’ve never been asked to do so.

E-commerce brings with it a host of ethical concerns. It’s possible to increase conversions and overall sales by using dark UX patterns, and doing so would make a UXer very well-liked within certain parts of the organization. Certainly, the pressure to create effective, dark UX here is greater than in most other sectors.

I enjoy reading about dark patterns, in part so I can understand them and in part so that I can spot them. A great resource to find out more about practical UX application in an underhanded manner is https://darkpatterns.org/.


#7

Just want to so, so far everything has been a wow moment. I’m really glad I asked about resources on the topic, as I can’t believe I haven’t heard of Dark Patterns or B Corps until now!

I hope to hear from more people, as it seems like this is something that has touched everyone so far.

Just a moment of perspective from the other side, too. (I’m going to really put myself out on a limb here) :sweat_smile:. As an engineer who’s finishing up a doctorate, I’ve had an interesting mix of opportunities. So far, I’ve had to step away from opportunities in heavy military contracting and really dig in to find other options.

Early in my education, I was exposed to the work IDEO was doing and found it compelling. That was the whole reason why I went the direction I did with my education. Along with that, their positive impact policy and their old “no assholes” policy really struck a chord with me and I adopted them. (I even have done an HCD online course with IDEO.org and Acumen that I really enjoyed)

While many different people feel differently about defense, I’ve never really been able to bring myself to get past two facts: after you build something you have no guarantee over 1.) how it’s going to be used, and 2.) who it will be used by.

1.) I strongly remember an interview by the creator of pepper spray following the debacle at UC Davis. He was talking about how he intended it to be a better alternative for force, but watching his face at how appalled he was that he had created this thing that he was seeing so misused has really stuck with me.

2.) Even if you build it for one audience, say the US army, and you’re comfortable with that use, it’s worth considering that where it goes after that is also a factor. So many recent US wars have been fought against groups armed with weaponry we built.

I have many colleagues, whom I consider friends, who do HF/UX work in a defense context, and I think that’s what drives some of my point about personal ethics versus professional ethics. I can respect that they differ with me on this subject and I think that, while it’s a violation of my personal ethics, it’s not a violation of theirs. Any professional ethic should be flexible enough to account for the different perspectives. I think the discussion needs to be had and individuals have to decide where they care to place the “vote” of their career efforts.

Even so, I’ve also seen a shift in some of my friends who’ve gone that route who were incredibly dedicated, but now are looking to make exits from defense into healthcare or other more pro-social fields after being disillusioned from seeing how the sausage is made.

All in all, I think my position has actually negatively impacted my job search so far, as I’m not a desirable candidate for anyone who has marginal interest in pursuing defense contracts. I know its affected my funding, as my research would have a decent chance of getting funding from the Army Research Lab.

I’m still holding out hope, however, that being clear over my standards are will make me a better
candidate for the kind of work that I really want to do. (Additionally, I have young colleagues who have voiced similar ambitions and concerns, but have been struggling similarly)


#8

That’s a lot of perspective - thank you @treyroady.

As an aside, A Book Apart is about to release a title on Accessibility by Laura Kalbag, who is also behind the ind.ie Ethical Design Manifesto.


#9

From what I can tell, ethics has been largely ignored or paid lip service up until now in UX, but people are starting to become more aware of some of the issues (e.g. the influence of personalised newsfeeds during the US election), and I think at some point there is going to be a public backlash that will force the industry to become serious about the issue.

It’s very easy to focus on the visible ethical dilemmas like dark patterns and gambling, but behind the scenes there are all kinds of bigger issues going on. What do companies do with all that data they gather about you? How secure is it? Where do we draw the line between personalisation being helpful vs manipulative? Are minorities treated fairly, and is diversity being helped or hindered? What responsibility should companies have if they detect problems from their data (e.g. what should Facebook do if they detect that you have been involved in criminal activity or are suffering from depression? What should they NOT do?). How should we tell products to respond in an emergency situation? (e.g. the dilemma of whether an automated car should be programmed to kill the driver if that will save other lives).

Finally, who should be held accountable for these issues? As UX designers we have a role to play - for example if we are designing a form we should question why the information is needed and how it will be used, rather than seeing that as someone else’s job.


#10

Ethics in UX is one of my favourite topics too. As user advocates it is our duty to ensure that engaging experiences we design should not blatantly sidestep moral dilemmas. It is of course not possible to prevent any invention from being mis-used like the example of a military weapon falling in the wrong hands. We need to do the best possible from our side. Sometimes inaction might have dangerous consequences than being misused.

I wrote an article about it as well. You can read it if you have few mins to spare :slight_smile: