About: Stephanie Lawrence

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Design Ethics in Practice

Designers don’t have to swear a Hippocratic oath, but as digital design continues to grow as a critical part of many industries, it will become more important than ever to follow a similar goal to “do no harm”. While the concept of “empathy” has been written about by designers to the point of being a buzzword, it’s an essential foundation to the purpose and value of design. It ultimately speaks to having empathy baked into your design process, and executing that process ethically.

As a researcher, I had to make these considerations, and thought I’d left them behind when I became a designer in tech. But when faced with working on a project that had cancer patients as users, all of my memories of old ethics training came back with new clarity.

This approach may be more familiar to those that have worked in behavioral or health research, but the same basic principle applies: when you’re working with your users — whether or not you’re talking with them and gathering information from them — you need to make sure to do more than listen. You need to actively take steps to protect them, and that includes their information and well-being. That means doing things like accounting for “edge-cases”, considering your users’ emotions, and trying to prevent things like this.

I’d like to propose a way to account for these concerns in practice. These are questions because there is no one correct answer, but asking these questions is only the first step. There is also an assumption that research is a part of your design process and that you are interacting with your users. Research is a big focus here because it’s a key part in making sure you account for diverse user needs, because tech has a BIG diversity problem and you’re unlikely to find out about them internally. But even if you can’t do any research, these questions are still critical to getting into the right headspace for taking charge of an ethical design process. So no excuses, look in the mirror and ask yourself:

Before your research (or When you start preparing to design):

  • What are your assumptions about who will use this product? What are your team’s assumptions about who will use this product? Where does your bias creep in? When you close your eyes and think of the personas you’ll make, are you thinking of stock photos of smiling white people in large offices and houses? Who are you not thinking about?
  • Have you thought about how this product can be used to harm others? What vulnerabilities can this be used to exploit? And what will you design to deter this? (Touch on this now before your team or leadership gets attached to anything.) Wonderful advice I’ve seen: ask yourself “How can this be used by an abusive ex to continue their abuse?”
  • Who have you picked to talk to about your design? A bunch of young white people? All from middle class backgrounds? Computer literate and savvy? Who are you excluding?
  • What information will you ask for when you talk to users? What will you actually do with that information? Just fill out the demographic section of your persona? Or do you actually need that private information to inform your design?

During your research (or Once you start defining your problem):

  • How accessible is the building where you’ll be talking to users? Does that Starbucks have a wheelchair ramp? Did you make sure to have comfortable seating? What are you going to ask users to do? How many times will they have to stand up and sit down?
  • Why are you going to Starbucks in your favorite part of town, and not the little corner restaurant in “that” part of town?
  • How do you treat people when you talk to them? Are you gawking at them as they use your product, and or you talking to them like another person?
  • How many people are going to watch this research? How much will they shit-talk about how ‘stupid’ users are, or about anyone that doesn’t look like them? (Don’t pretend that this doesn’t happen.) What will you say to stop them? Who is your team listening to? Who are they tuning out?
  • What other ways are you trying to get information about your users? Are you only talking to them? What other relevant background information have you looked up? Are you only looking at Medium articles, or are you trying to find news, books, and and other pieces written about their culture and history? Or are you just plowing forward thinking “people are people”?

After your research (or After you’ve started designing solutions):

  • How are you making sure to represent feedback from all of your users? If you don’t, who are you excluding?
  • What concerns does your team decide to address? Which users are they trying to serve, and whose needs do they decide can ‘wait’? 
  • When you are speaking with your team, what decisions do you defend? Which battles do you decide aren’t worth it? When you’re “the voice of the user”, whose voice do you choose to take on? Which users do you fight for, and which do you decide aren’t worth the cost?
  • Accessibility. It’s not a question. Always think about accessibility, but definitely think about it here.

This isn’t just about thinking about users in general when designing. It’s about thinking about how you’re thinking about people who will use the product you design. It’s about understanding what actual user advocacy is. It’s about having a plan if your team decides that PoC, women, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, are not a ‘high priority user group’, and making sure their needs are not ignored or de-prioritized. It may not seem important for a pizza-ordering app, but 1) everyone needs to eat, and 2) what about an app for obtaining help with getting health insurance? or getting a babysitter for children? finding a job? “Tech” isn’t just some niche thing, it is an ubiquitous discipline that spans industries. That means that designing for digital tools can carry the responsibility that designing a door or a toilet would; you need to make sure everyone can reasonably use it, because everyone needs to use it.

These questions are not easily answered, but this is at the heart of what design is about: bringing some kind of improvement to people’s life and addressing a problem, not causing one. Design ethics in practice should bake in trying to be as inclusive as possible in spreading the benefits of the design solutions that are created. You can never please everyone, but who you choose to please and choose to leave behind is on your shoulders.