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Putting Ethics at the Heart of the Design Process

In the age of internet addiction, how can we, as designers, create experiences that have a positive impact on our users' mental health and wellbeing?


Ethical Design Process

Mental health in the age of internet addiction

When we receive a text, our brains release the chemical dopamine (you’ve probably heard of it), which gives us a rush of happiness and a feeling of contentment or even euphoria.

This all sounds fine, but not when you consider that when we drink, smoke and gamble it’s the exact same trigger for dopamine, making the experiences “highly highly addictive”.

If governments, councils and communities are all taking action to reduce the negative impact these addictive activities are having on our mental health; why are we yet to see restrictions on things like social media?

“It’s the equivalent of opening the liquor cabinet and saying to our teenagers ‘hey by the way if this adolescence thing gets you down [nods at cabinet] ”.

How do brands design an experience that negatively impacts our mental health?

Let’s start with social media, one of the worst offenders when it comes to dark patterns, more specifically, their misuse of personal data.

In one of the worst cases I’ve seen so far, Facebook tested the use of positive vs negative posts in users feeds, what they did wrong was not notifying users this was happening, so some people had their feeds full of negative posts, without a second thought to how this would affect users with depressions or anxiety.

A few other examples include having additional items added to your basket before you checkout (most commonly insurance for products you buy) and the way brands give you constant pop-ups to tell you many items they have left in stock (which is usually not true at all) to make you feel like you have to make a purchase and quickly.

My least favourite dark pattern, however, is when you sign up for a free trial, but when it ends, you’re charged for the next month without being informed your free trial had ended.

Transactions, Data and Spam Dark Patterns

The Dark Patterns card deck – brought to life by designer James in a project to raise awareness of immoral design and ethical alternatives.

The principles of Human-Centered Design

Human centred design refers to an approach that puts people, not users, at the heart of every decision made throughout the process.

Getting individuals involved in each and every stage throughout the process, every single decision made takes into consideration the views of the end users, no assumptions are made on what will add the most value or create the best experience or them.

This includes everything from deciding on a feature set to how people navigate your platform or even the tone of voice used to convey content and information.

How do we put ethics at the heart of the design process?

In a world where compromises are always going to need to be made to our designs, between conflicting opinions and goals of stakeholders, users and the environment around them, it’s so, so important we take a holistic view when it comes to design.

In the design world, it can be very easy to preach that your design process is human centred and ethical but very difficult to actually follow and maintain. Taking a holistic approach means stepping back and looking at the bigger picture around our projects.

Which in turn allows you to fully understand ‘the space between’ your product or service, and the impact that this has not only to your users but also to the people, nature and environment that your product or service will go on to effect, either now or in the distant future.

Holistic Design:

An approach that designers use to look at the bigger picture of their product or project. By considering the environment and wider ecosystem of the users they’re designing an experience for.

Research & investigating

The first stage in almost any project is to do your research. You should start by making sure your research is ethical by following the guidelines of an ethics research committee, to ensure that when you’re interacting, observing and interviewing people, you’re always producing an unbiased experience and insights.

These guidelines are crucial in ensuring we never dehumanise our users by referring to them under the umbrella term ‘users’. When in fact each and every user is different and unique, meaning that to truly understand them we need to look past the term to see how our product or service can actually benefit them.

One thing that’s crucial throughout your design process is thinking past your users; research into how your product or service might impact those that aren’t using it, the environment it’s being used in or other systems/processes your end users might already have in place.

Digital strategy and consultancy
Evangelism and knowledge sharing

A lot can get lost in translation.

Knowledge-sharing is such an integral part of any design process that making research open and visible to the wider team is one way to ensure insights are found and impact is never overlooked.

Don’t underestimate the importance of this from an ethical standpoint, because no matter how experienced you are, one person cannot hold the answers to everything and is destined to miss things during their own research.

Design and user testing

During the actual design stage is where it’s arguably the most important to consider the impact of our experience on the user, environment and people around them.

Pulling out all your UX and UI designs into a massive flow chart and studying ‘the space between’ them. It’s in this space that you’ll find the answers to your ethical impact.

When moving into user testing, you should follow the same principles of ethical approval as your research phase, making sure everything you do avoids leading people towards providing certain answers or creates a bias behind the decisions they make.

UX Design Process

Ethics is a grey area; people define them differently

There are a number of ways ethics can be interpreted and one person’s definition of ethical design can vary massively from others, but where do we draw the line? Take religion or philosophy for example, one person would argue that promoting this was ethical while others would see it as manipulative.

Here are a few ethical questions to have a think about:

  1. A client asks you to photoshop an image of them to alter their appearance and make them look ‘thinner’ on a team page, would you?
  2. Would you lie or mislead your users if you thought the desired outcome would still actually benefit them?
  3. A client approaches you with an idea for an app that could help millions, but need to generate revenue from it, do you sell your users data or turn the project down?

You can make up your own mind about which decisions you would consider ethical, but consider the fact that many others would go the other way; does that make them unethical? Without going into too much detail on the philosophical side of things; check out this awesome TEDTalk all about the grey area in ethics and digital experiences.

As designers, we have a huge responsibility to safeguard our users from unethical experiences

Our mission is to change millions of lives for the better; by having the best people working on the best projects to make the biggest impact. Our design vision to achieve this? Create the best possible experience for our users.

Meaning that sometimes we have to be brave and challenge clients on whether or not something should be included in an app or downright turning away opportunities that we feel stray from tech for good projects and will have negative impacts on communities in the long run.

Design ethics aren’t a set a rules for your team to follow, they’re a living, moving set of values that should be the guiding star to everything that you work on. They change, they adapt, they differ; the important thing is that they’re present at each stage and decision your team make.

Published on June 27, 2019, last updated on May 10, 2021

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