4 Ethical Tips for Designers

Make better decisions to become a better designer

Graduating medical-school students of today still swear to The Hippocratic Oath. This document was made in the late 5th century B.C. and contains moral guidelines to remind doctors of how they can react to certain challenges that come with the job. For example: How to respect the privacy of the patient. As designers we encounter ethical challenges as well and we could also use some guidelines. I will explore 4 themes that can help us make better decisions.

Ethical challenges
As a designer you encounter, if you are aware of it or not, ethical challenges on a daily basis. And it only makes sense since there are various parties you relate to in the process of making a product:

  • The creator, you
  • The creative product
  • The client or product owner
  • The users

I limited the list to four parties. These parties relate dynamically to each other in the process of creation. Just to mention a few connections: You make the product, the product has been defined by the client, the client wants to reach the users and the users commit themselves to the client. Or a bit more complex connections: You try to understand the wishes of the client, the client wants to make money with the product, the product makes life easy for the users and the users will encounter functionalities you came up with.

It is inevitable that all of the interactions ask for decisions because many questions rise: How much will you invoice the client? How much data of the users will be stored within the product? What is the goal of the client with the product? What do the users get in return by owning the product?

Here are 4 ethical tips, with helpful questions, that can help you make better decisions:

No. 1 — Be responsible

A lot of the times designers can be so focused on making the product that we tend to forget the consequences of getting it out there. Think of Dong Nguyen, the maker of Flappy Bird. He pulled the app out of the App Store because he didn’t want to harm others anymore. He said: “It happened to become an addictive product”.

We have a responsibility to design products that work, but don’t forget what the products’ influence is on the world.

Questions you can ask yourself:

  • Who is responsible for the consequences of the product? Am I or is the client?
  • How far am I willing to go to reach the goal of the product?
  • Am I hurting others (like the client, co-workers or the users) by making certain design choices?

No. 2 — Have respect for autonomy

This theme comes close to responsibility, but it is different. Autonomy can be described in many ways, but in short it’s “the individuals right of freedom to make their own decisions”. We talked about decisions that can hurt others, but this is interesting in the context of the users. As designers we decide how a product is working and that gives us power.

A small example: We sometimes inspire the users to click on the designed call-to-action button. That action leads them to a product we want them to buy instead of helping them to buy a product that they truly need.

Questions you can ask yourself:

  • Am I invading the personal space of others with my design?
  • Am I manipulating or helping the users with certain design decisions? (check this article about Facebook for example)
  • How can I create space within the product so that users can make their own decisions?

No. 3 — Master integrity

The theme of integrity is very broad and consists of many sub themes. I want to limit this theme to “being the one you claim you are”. There are many examples of companies that promise to be helpful, original and so on. But are they really? There are also great examples of companies that really see their promises through.

A few years ago I joined Media Temple because they claimed this: “A web host you can count on”. I went for the dv option and knew it was a plan for those who can manage their own server. But when I installed the latest update, something went wrong. All of my clients’ websites were offline. I contacted them via Twitter, asked a question there and they helped me right away. Within an hour Media Temple solved the problem for me and all websites were online again. That’s integrity.

Questions you can ask yourself:

  • Am I the designer I claim to be?
  • Would I use the product I created myself?
  • Am I delivering the product I’ve promised the client and the users?

No. 4 — Defend equality

The past 6 years as a designer I encountered this theme a lot. I noticed clients always want to know if they are treated (at least) equally. They want to know if they aren’t treated less than the others and if they are paying more than them. Sadly, the theme of equality doesn’t stop there. Too many times I read articles about female designers being treated with no respect.

It’s 2014, but women in my home country, The Netherlands, are still getting paid less than men for the same job.

The field we work in, design, claims to have knowledge about forthcoming trends. We are always looking ahead and fighting to be recognised as experts in the world of technology. And yet, equality of men and women is still a dream.

Questions you can ask yourself:

  • Am I asking totally different prices for the same products or time? Is it fair to the clients?
  • Am I giving the client the same care as I give other clients?
  • How do I treat women in the field of design? Do I defend equality?

By going through these four themes I hope we can start incorporating ethics more into the field of design. I believe a conscious designer is a better designer.

- I’m maintaining a growing collection of articles about Design & Ethics
- More Ethical themes to think about: Transparency, Accountability, Confidentiality, Objectivity, Respectfulness, Obedience to the law, Loyalty [

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