The State of Ethics in Design

The topic of ethics has been talked about for years, and while “technoethics” (the study of moral, legal and social issues involving technology) dates back to the 1970s, it primarily involves technologists, scientists, and philosophers. But why aren’t designers involved in these conversations? Why isn’t this a topic that’s regularly discussed in the workplace or design community?

Over the course of 7 weeks, our team (Alex Honeywell, Amanda Poh and Maheen Sohail) researched, developed, and tested with various designers. As previous interns from Facebook, Microsoft, and AKQA, our team was able to leverage our background of both tech and agency. In addition, we engaged with design students and senior designers to learn about the role ethics play in their design process.

Here are 3 problem areas that we’ve identified:

1. A Lack of Resources

Part of the problem is that ethics are not being taught in design schools. We scanned through the curriculums of design schools such as Parsons, Carnegie Mellon, SIAT and found that young designers are rarely taught how to ethically critique their design decisions. Because of this, young designers are entering the industry with few resources on ethical design and little to no experience when it comes to approaching ethical concerns within their team.

2. The Follow Through

The topic of ethics is only ever intentionally considered during user research. Referred to as relational ethics, this informs qualitative research such as ethnographic studies. It’s helped researchers build respectful connections with the people they study. Thing is, ethics in design extends throughout the entire design process — not just during research, but also in our design decisions.

3. From Craft to Morals

We’re too focused on designing experiences without intentionally considering our human rights. Design shouldn’t be driven by a passion for craft, it should be driven by morals.

“Our challenge is great: The alternatives that we create must be convenient and accessible.” (Aral Balkin)

In order to do so, it’s important for designers to take a step back and question the existing design patterns we’ve grown accustomed to. In the case of Netflix, autoplaying videos might seem like a great way to increase product engagement–after all, think of the countless hours we spend on end watching our favourite shows. As designers, we need to take a step back and think about what we’re asking of our users. By encouraging behaviours like binge-watching, is this deteriorating the overall health of a user?

The attention economy serves as a great example of how we are no longer mindful of our user’s time. An important voice on this issue is Ex-Google Design Ethicist, Tristan Harris. His company ‘Time Well Spent’ focuses on designing with the user’s time in mind. With his platform, he speaks of different ways we can reclaim our attention and take back control. Time Well Spent currently focuses on web and mobile, but as new technologies like Virtual Reality become widespread, it’s important that we start critiquing their ethical concerns early in development.

The work of leaders like Tristan Harris and Aran Balkan serve as models for ethical design thinking because they use huma

n values to consciously drive their decision making. We need more designers to talk about the importance of human values, and start designing for them.

In response, we’d like to introduce, Ethical Design Thinking.


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