“Unseen Constraints” Ethics in User Interface

Jeeyoung Jung
Oct 27, 2017 · 16 min read
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Productivity Future Vision (Microsoft, 2012)

1988, The Los Angeles Times Magazine published as their cover story what some experts imagined the future would look like in 25 years, with guesses made studying the current trends and predicting future ones in the technology field. Experts saw the future in 1988 as a future with navigation systems built into vehicles. They also saw the future with communication tools such as video, digital messaging, digital mail, and a computer that had the capability of displaying color videos and images. The future would also have something seemingly impossible at the time: private personal printers. In the past, predictions were only looked at scientific advances for humankind. These only saw the benefits of technology. However, there are many issues that arise with interface design such as issues with privacy, copyright, censorship, and anonymity.

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(Figure 1) Screenshots taken from Amazon and UX Magazine

Today, interface design is not a simple function. Rather it has become very complicated and it attracts the consumers. If an item searched on Amazon is displayed as a banner advertisement in a separate website, this is not a coincidence. For some time, most advertisements in the websites one visits will display the item searched. This may be the case for items that were not added to the cart or the wish list. (Figure 1) Merely searching for these items triggers an advertisement rush.

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Figure 2) Screenshots taken from Facebook Android App

Facebook, with its 1.06 billion monthly active users, uses the posted comments, photos, and likes to collect personal information to be used in personal advertisements displayed on the top right side of the Facebook home page. This then correctly steers the interests of users to certain products. People also struggle with the notification function of Facebook on their Android Smart Phones. Facebook has a disable notification button, but it only disables the notices for eight hours. (Figure 2) When people try to avoid notification for Facebook, they have to constantly disable the setting. Another problematic example would be free file sharing by downloading music or movies. The music and film industries claim to be protecting their own rights but this hinders the free access that many users want. Downloading and uploading music is a violation of copyright laws. It is not true that keeping the file for less than 24 hours is legal, and it is a myth that uploading is legal it you have paid for the original work. Online companies like Napster offered users free music sharing, but large recording companies stopped this by closing these websites down, claiming copyright laws. These recording companies or film studios utilized security companies to catch these users that illegally downloaded or uploaded such files and threatened to sue or make the user pay large fines. Interestingly however, many of these recording companies today see the light in sharing music for free because this will allow them to reach a larger audience. Utilization of YouTube or Spotify is a clear example of recording companies seeing an advantage in allowing users to share content online.

The advancement of technology has surpassed the hopes and dreams of the people of the past. It has allowed for humanity to lead a productive life and has changed the way day-to-day tasks are completed. However personal information used by Amazon and Facebook has created privacy issues and the services provided by YouTube and Spotify have caused copyright and censorship problems. Therefore the development of technology has brought many negative impacts to the society as a whole. This very situation is occurring with interface design as well.

Interface Design

In the 1960s, computers were believed to last at least 25 years, but today computers are expected to be use no more than five years. Much like instant food, many companies release new devices every week, and therefore interface design needs to accommodate this fast paced release of products. Consequently, the development of new technology depends on a bigger role to be contributed by interface design. Unlike the past where new functions held an importance in technological advancement, today more people rely on better design and look for more efficient use of technology.

Gui Bonsiepe said, “The creation of user interface meant the link between people, technology, and actions.” If we look at history, interface design is based on the product design. Wikipedia explains “The user interface, in the industrial design field of human–machine interaction, is the space where interaction between humans and machines occurs.” The one of the greatest industrial designers, Dieter Rams explains how good design is honest. “It’s not making a product more innovative, powerful or valuable.” Designers only design with the sole purpose of maximizing physical efficiency through means of scientific advancement. In this case, designers only see in the short term, meaning they only design for instant economic profit and efficiency to get whatever job done. Interface design should focus on the medium and long term, where the consequences of such efficiency should influence the livelihood of humans and our society. As a result, to develop current and future interface design, we need to utilize some guidelines. These guidelines will include ethical problems as the basis for design because ethics have a big role in social order. Our goal should at least be to focus on the mid-term where the consequences of efficiency should influence interface design by ethics. This is why we should understand some of the basic ethical theories and we should think of these theories during development to better the society and industry.


Ethics are spread into many different points of view. Utilitarianism is one such view that started in the middle of the 19th century as a new thought in society. The goal of utilitarianism is that, “Everyone and anyone should act to bring the greatest possible happiness for as many people as possible.” Hence, the only thing that determines if an act is good or bad is the amount of happiness it will bring to as many people as possible. The important point here is that it is very simple to determine if an act is good or bad. Utilitarianism is classified as something where humans look to maximizing happiness and avoiding or getting rid of suffering altogether. The thing that determines how ethical human actions are the basis of utilitarianism. Hence, anything that increases the happiness and joy for humans is a good thing while anything that brings harm or suffering is considered bad. Moreover to maximize happiness in society is to bring happiness to as many people as possible. Therefore the main goal of utilitarianism is to bring “the greatest happiness [to] the greatest number.” The basis of determining what is good and what is bad is determined by how much happiness a certain thing brings and this is called the “Principle of Utility.” Also, since Utilitarianism’s sole focus on happiness is personal selfishness, this train of thought focuses on economic liberty.

Does Utilitarianism truly have an influence on the interface design of modern times? The important point is that Utilitarianism is based on majority rule. As long as there is happiness for the masses, the needs for the few are disregarded. Censorship is a prime example of this.

The main purpose of censorship is to protect the people in society. However, there is some censorship that limits peoples’ lives and even their basic freedoms. Some countries strictly enforce censorship for the government’s benefit and to promote propaganda. This restricts the human mind from exploring the limits of human thought, and it controls how people interact and act. Censorship of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube has occurred because of the open nature of social networks; several countries have interfered with or banned access to such media, including countries like Syria, China, and North Korea.

On the other hand, the United States of America may not seem to enforce censorship as much as the former mentioned nations, but the U.S. is no exception where censorship is enforced to sway certain decisions claiming to be for the good of the people. The U.S. is just as much influenced by how much censorship exists. It claims that censorship is used as a tool to protect US citizens. However, American citizens have certain information cersored to create a belief. For example, the censorship on the War on Terror resulted in a big case due to WikiLeaks. A lot of things are hidden from common citizens to create a unified thought of peace when in fact, the situation is not what it seems.

Another example is pornography. Pornography is a serious danger to society’s morals. People need to carefully take this into account when weighing the costs and benefits of censoring pornographic material. It is very hard to say what is moral or immoral because we live in a pluralist society. Some people’s values can be radically different from other people’s values. Which means that what people consider moral or immoral might not necessarily be what other people consider moral or immoral. But, John Stuart Mill makes this point in a memorable passage: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their one side of the question.” Blocking pornographic material could become an important freedom of speech issue. Meanwhile, the film and music businesses have been censoring access hoping to deal with the problems of piracy. Filtering out pornographic websites would certainly provide legitimacy to that suggestion.


Liberalism is a view where society and community only exist to protect and respect the personal freedoms of an individual. It is not Libertarianism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains libertarianism as in a strict sense, “where the moral view of the agents initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things.” Liberalism is sometimes confused, for example, with liberty and emancipation and the exclusion of force but this is not liberalism. In order to pursue Liberalism, three things are required. The first is to see if liberty is important in a specific situation. Second, the amount of time this liberty needs to be applied has to be determined. Lastly, a practical method of application of this liberty must be determined. This then means that people have the right to do what they want as long as it does not harm other humans. As long as you do not harm anyone else by expressing your liberties, no one can restrict your liberties. Also, the government has no right to restrict human liberties with the purpose of protecting the government from such individuals. The government cannot restrict liberties in order to influence how society should live. Mill argues, “Independence is absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

We can think of the government-run retirement program where one chooses to live for today and only for oneself. Why should this person be restricted to giving his resources to others when he has the right to use his resources for himself? Who has the right to prevent this person from doing what he wants with what he has rightfully earned?” Robert Nozick states that individual rights are so strong that an individual can do whatever they may wish to do. He concludes that government should exist only to protect people from harm such as force, theft, and fraud. Nozick also stated that anything more than this would violate the rights of the people and that this would force them into a certain livelihood.

Anonymity is an important point where people can choose to talk about what they want from the privacy of their own homes. If government were to prohibit anonymity and expose everyone, this would cause major ethical issues where personal problems could benefit the government and not allow the freedom of speech.

In Eric Schmidt’s book, The New Digital Age, he explains that although there are many practicalities that come with the Internet, there are also possible chaotic and horrifying results that could result from dealings on the Internet. He said that we are living in a world where the “delete button has been deleted.” Today, if we were to delete something it doesn’t truly go away. Schmidt warns that all comments, pictures, videos leave a personal footprint that anyone could trace. He claims that it is a misconception to think that you can “entirely delete your data” because with enough work, any amount of information can be retrieved.

Today has become a world where past mistakes will never go away and the idea of a “hero” or “myth” will cease to exist. Recently in Korea, there was a study on the plagiarism of dissertation pieces. This study dug up past thesis statements of famous individuals from 10 to 20 years ago and found that although some were genuine, that most were plagiarized, causing an issue amongst the educational community. We might think that we can control the privacy of things we post or upload onto the Internet, but we never think about the fact that all of this information is very easily retrievable. The current practice by leading social network sites is to use the personal information of their users to their advantage becoming a strict opposite to liberalism. As a result, people become victims with terrible consequences.

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(Figure 3) http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-w8PU_9XGRz4/T-iJxEcWxII/AAAAAAAABr8/KFVraLbu3B0/s1600/subway%2Bsmartphone.jpg

We have the right and the freedom to use smartphones or tablets. However, our dependence on these devices is causing a sort of disability in our society. People today have completely altered the way they interact with one another. If you take a ride on a subway (figure 3), you will notice how almost everyone has their heads facing the ground because they are using some sort of mobile device, interacting with others through the Internet. People may wish to interact with humans in whatever means they wish, but this causes a rift in human relationships where future generations lose the ability to communicate with others face to face. There are communication issues but moreover our social activities or academic knowledge or skills are slowly decreasing and therefore we need to pay more attention to how we manage our time with these mobile devices.

The concept of liberalism is finely shown in the open source OS, Ubuntu. For this reason, this OS was given the name Ubuntu because it means 'humanity to others' as well as meaning, 'I am what I am because of who we all are'. The Ubuntu operating system brings the spirit of this African term to the world of computers. This OS is used by thousands of people and these people are willing to help build the best open-source operating system that exists in this world. They volunteer their time and skills to make sure that Ubuntu keeps getting better and better. The biggest advantage open source has is that these products are directly influenced by the community’s needs and wants resulting in direct satisfaction. The vision for Ubuntu is part social and part economic: free software, available free of charge to everybody on the same terms, and funded through a portfolio of services provided by Canonical.


The last ethical view is Paternalism where certain laws exist only to protect humans from dangers. This is much like requiring a seatbelt or a helmet when riding certain vehicles. You may not get into an accident anytime soon but they are there as a safety measure. Liberalists may argue, however, that this obstructs with human rights to choose to do whatever they wish.

Paternalism may sound like a form of restriction, but paternalism, as evident by its name, can be described as what a parent does for their child. Parents give their children orders for their own safety but they do not do so as a totalitarian regime. They display these laws out of love. Interface design should act like.

We can think of a door when we go to convenience stores or other places. With doors constructed of glass or stainless steel, many people tend to open these doors incorrectly, but having a small arrow indicating where to push or pull or even displaying a sign to push or pull can eliminate potential harm ahead of time. The customer would not even need to think about it.

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(Figure 4) Nissan Leaf android app (1st gen)

The BMW center console is a good example of this type of conscientious design. The vehicles produced by BMW starting from the 1980s accommodated the consumer. The center console tilted towards the driver to minimize distraction while driving and at the same time allowed for multi-tasking although accommodation resulted in complaints from consumers due to the lack of touch screen implementation (figure 4). However, the Nissan Leaf exemplifies one bad thing that can arise in applying paternalism in vehicles. This vehicle persuades users into more economical driving habits by comparing fuel efficiency of other vehicles to your own. However, this causes some problems because users try and gain better fuel efficiency by not stopping at red lights or stop signs because you have to constantly restart the engine every time you stop. There might be good intentions of creating better habits, but design flaws can cause good habits to turn into bad habits.

In reality, Paternalism forces consumers without their opinion or thoughts and is clearly seen in interface design. However, recently many designs are beginning to implement interface design that uses liberal Paternalism, also known as, Soft Paternalism. Simply put, the old “hard” paternalism would say, “We know what is best for you, and we will force you to do it.” By contrast, soft paternalism would say, “You know what is best for you, and we will help you to do it.”

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(Figure 5) http://3-photos4.ebizautos.com/used-2011-honda-cr~z-3drcvtex-9278-10431196-27-400.jpg

One good example would be the increased interest in producing electric cars, causing a trend among major mobile vehicle companies. This in turn is causing a stir among consumers and many are beginning to see the advantages to such vehicles. However, just because a vehicle is electric does not mean that it is more efficient as a marketing product than a gasoline or diesel. This is because there are many cars that incorporate the electric or hybrid system with the addition to adding joy to driving like the Honda CR-Z. Companies are looking to create vehicles that are fun to drive for consumers while also having the economical advantages for their budget rather than an interface design that solely focuses on saving money on gas. In other words, consumers want to save money by having that “Eco” drive while also enjoying their drive with a “Sport” drive mode, giving consumers control to do what they want with the product they purchased for themselves (figure 5).

There are three views of ethics, each view seeming to have its own direction, but with regards to interface design, simple guidelines can be used to organize these thoughts.

(1) All interface design should guarantee the security of the people.

(2) Interface design cannot obstruct the freedom of human expression.

(3) If such freedom interferes with protecting the people, such freedoms can be restricted.

Soft paternalism is more effective than the others because it will lead to better human structure and reduce the risk to our future. If we were to create an interface design with this guideline, humankind will be able to experience true liberty and moreover be able to enjoy true happiness when incorporating their lives with technology.

Interface design has the potential to become one of the major contributors to design as a whole. One of the ways to increase the livelihood of humans through interface design is by applying soft paternalistic issues and ideals into the construction. Ethical theories are not just to determine whether something is right or wrong. What someone considers moral or immoral might not be the same as what someone else might consider moral or immoral. Therefore no one can give a correct answer and everyone has to find the answer for him or herself. Interface design does not follow a simple rule of design. It is not just following the trend design or feature of design issue. During a TED session, Sebastian Deterding asks some basic questions.

“What are the intentions that one brings to bear when they're designing something? What are the effects, intended and unintended, that the designer might have? What are the values a designer uses to judge those intentions or effects?”

Sebastian Deterding

There is this idea of three different types of terms that were brought up before. Rather than focusing on the short-term, a designer must contemplate the effects his or her design might have on the mid-term or long-term. The designer must keep the three former questions in mind and completely understand the reasons and the implications of technology and their design. Therefore, one must fully understand the human behavior, the culture, and the ethics in design. Humanity dreams of the future as a future that brings a happier and better life for humankind, and it is up to the designers to try to address the ethical dilemma that arises with interface design.


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3. Hartson, H. Rex., and Pardha S. Pyla. The UX Book: Process and Guidelines for Ensuring a Quality User Experience. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2012. Print.

4. “L.A. 2013.” Documents.latimes.com. 28 May 2013 http://documents.latimes.com/la-2013

5. “Libertarianism.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). 25 May 2013 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/libertarianism/

6. Martin, James. The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future. New York: Riverhead, 2006. Print.

7. Mill, John Stuart, and Oskar Piest. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957. Print.

8. Sabbagh, Dan. “Blocking internet pornography … that’s censorship, isn’t it?” The Guardian. 01 Sept. 0020. Guardian News and Media. 25 May 2013http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/organgrinder/2010/dec/20/ed-vaizey-pornography

9. Sandel, Michael J. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. Print.

10. “Sebastian Deterding: What your designs say about you.” TED: Ideas worth spreading. 25 May 2013. http://www.ted.com/talks/sebastian_deterding_what_your_designs_say_about_you.html

11. Secomandi, Fernando. Interface Matters Postphenomenological Perspectives on Service Design, 2012. Print.

12. Schmidt, Eric, and Jared Cohen. The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

13. The Rise of the New Paternalism.” Cato Unbound. 27 May 2013 http://www.cato-unbound.org/2010/04/05/glen-whitman/rise-new-paternalism

14. The Ubuntu story.” About Ubuntu. 25 May 2013 http://www.ubuntu.com/about/about-ubuntu

15. “User interface.” Wikipedia. 26 May 2013. Wikimedia Foundation. 28 May 2013 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_interface

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