What does it mean to be an ethical UX designer?

What does it mean to be an ethical designer?

Hint – it has more to do with asking thoughtful questions than having the “right” answer.

At Fuzzy Math, we thrive at the intersection of people, process, and data. A big part of the fun for us is charting a path through the fuzzy parts that exist at each of those intersections. To create experiences that prioritize user needs as the gateway to reaching business goals – ethics is with us every step of the way. 

What are UX design ethics?

UX design ethics are not established in the same way as they are for other fields like engineering, or medicine. Akin to moral philosophy, ethics in design has an element of subjectivity present at the individual, business, and societal/cultural level. As designers, the ethical dilemmas we contend with manifest in the form of considering critical questions that can sometimes go beyond a product’s immediate sphere of influence and are intersectional in nature.

A designer’s ethical perspective

I think of design ethics this way – How can I, as a designer, practice an honest acknowledgement about the implicit choices in my (and my team’s) design decisions?

I have arrived at the practice of honest acknowledgement through the experience of designing within constraints. I don’t think I’ve delivered a design that wasn’t influenced by intersecting interests  – that’s reality, that’s expected, and that’s okay.

Honest acknowledgement is part advocacy and part reflection. For me being an ethical designer means asking the hard and complex questions as I move through each phase of design. 

An example of exercising honest acknowledgement is during the creation of user personas and in the early stages of design. By establishing primary users, we are also implicitly establishing a hierarchy of users and edge cases – users who are not a product’s primary user or crucial adopters to a product’s success. Designer Mike Monteiro explained it well –  “When you decide who you’re designing for, you’re making an implicit statement about who you’re not designing for. For years we referred to people who weren’t crucial to our products’ success as “edge cases”.” 

Usually it’s possible to create designs that center users, satisfy business needs, and is a positive experience for all users. But, what about when it’s fuzzy? How do you decide what features to leave out altogether, or what to push to version 2? How do you decide what to prioritize when you can’t include it all? How do we decide the exchange rate between designs that are more invasive or slightly less usable in favor of driving metrics like engagement, and sales, or to fit within constraints such as feature prioritization and budget? 

As you can start to see, the exchange rate is not a straightforward equation. 

That’s when company, team, and designer level ethics comes in. 

Like being an ethical human, being an ethical designer is a lifelong practice that evolves as our understanding evolves.

Questions to spark group conversation around ethical design

In an article for Slate, Victoria Sgarro poses some great questions to cultivate explicit ethical conversations during the design process, and they’re a great starting point to kickstart a discussion about ethics with your design team –

  • What are the long-term problems facing the industry you’re designing for?
  • How does your design problem relate to, or intersect with or contribute to them?
  • At what environmental, cultural, social cost does your design solution come?
  • Who is your design solution serving, and who is it not serving?
  • Are your team and testing representative of the populations impacted? 
  • How does your solution play into your users’ values, preferences, and behaviors?

Some areas to pause and consider ethics and resources to help

  • User Research – Are you sourcing, conducting and storing user research data in an ethical way?
  • Metric Prioritization – Are success metrics the largest driver, rather than a tool, in design decision making? 
  • Default Options – Are you collecting more information than you need? Are you making decisions on the user’s behalf? 
  • Accessibility – Is accessibility something that’s always on the roadmap instead of being part of the design process?
  • Ads – What is the line between increasing ad revenue and providing an enjoyable user experience? Could you implement features that give users more control over their ad experience?

At Fuzzy Math, we understand the complexity inherent in designing a user experience that treats users as people while helping businesses achieve their goals. Human – centered design is at the heart of what we do, and with that, questions around ethical design are a part of our designer’s toolbox. 

As we know better, we do better.

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