Ethics Affects — What Do We Stand For?
Before we get started, I’ll let you know that what follows is going to be me spitting out my uninformed and uneducated opinions on design ethics. Sound fun? Great! As Barack Obama and John Lennon once said (probably)… Let’s do this!
We’re going to start with the big one. And, I guess, the most notorious of ethical dilemmas in UX. ‘Things designed to trick users into completing a task they otherwise wouldn’t.’ They’re deceptive, they’re manipulative, and they have a very exciting name — it’s Dark Patterns!
We can all generally agree that feeling tricked or forced into doing something isn’t very nice. It can even feel downright bad. Dark Patterns do exactly this, though, and as bad as their reputation is, it hasn’t stopped them from being a thing (see: www.darkpatterns.org). From Amazon to Facebook, from Tumblr to Google, everyone and their nan has used or is using Dark Patterns.
As someone who isn’t a professional yet, even I can recognise the harm in designing under their duplicitous shade, which makes me wonder; might there be something to using Dark Patterns?
In life, we don’t like doing things we don’t want to, but isn’t doing those things a necessary part of, y’know, life? Whether it’s sitting down and choosing to order a salad over the burger and chips you’ve been fantasising about all day or wrenching yourself out of the warm cocoon of your bed on a chilly winter morning, we all force ourselves to do stuff we rather wouldn’t, right?
Right. The key difference between these activities and Dark Patterns is that we force ourselves to do these things rather than being tricked into doing things that don’t benefit us a bit (which is why we need to be tricked into doing it in the first place).
“Hey, Sam,” I hear you say, “that’s all well and good that it tricks users into doing stuff they don’t want, and I get that that’s bad, but what makes Dark Patterns unethical?” and to that I say; well, because that’s not what UX is about. If I understand it correctly, I’d say it flies in the face of what UX is about.
User experience. User-centred design means we’re all about the users, their satisfaction, and their success. This is top-priority, but also it’s important to remember our business goals and take them into account. Here lies the cause of our ethical predicament.
Dark Patterns are the result of the balance between user goals and business goals skewed too radically toward the business side of things. And that ain’t gonna fly. Ethically, at least. UX designers have no accrediting governing body, and so, are free to exercise unethical behaviours without fear of losing the title of ‘UX designer’, not that it was ever earned to begin with. For more on how experience design isn’t a profession, check out Zoe Rose’s article.
If you’re a doctor and breach official ethical code, you cannot continue work as a doctor. If you’re a lawyer and breach official ethical code, you cannot continue work as a lawyer. If you’re a UX designer and breach the official ethical code, you say, “what official code?”
So yes, there in fact IS something to using Dark Patterns, but it isn’t in the best interest of your users, and that should be where your consideration for using them stops. While it might seem in the best interest of your business, it just might not be in the long haul.
You shouldn’t steer away from nudging your users in the right direction, so long as you don’t go Dark. A bit Dim, I think, is fine.
But what other ethical responsibilities do we have?
Well, I found this:
This is ind.ie’s Ethical Design Manifesto. It’s based off of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — a similar pyramid-structured model. It serves as a really great breakdown of the basics of design ethics. There’s really no need for it to be more elaborate than this. Ethics is pretty basic. The Manifesto illustrates the respect we must have for our users.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing some pretty big words there. Words like, “human rights”, “sustainability”, “privacy”, and “delight”. There’s some other stuff here too, though, and these are more easily linked to our design practices; “functional” and “convenient”? Sure. But, “private”? “Decentralised”? Are these the things I should’ve been gravely concerned with during my past projects? Luckily, not necessarily.
Ind.ie’s Manifesto can be applied to any manner of design practices; it’s not exclusive to UX. Whether you’re a UX designer or a human-computer interaction designer, there are fundamental responsibilities we all share and should be held accountable for. We have the responsibility to ensure our designs are functional and reliable. We have the responsibility that what we make is secure and sustainable. We have these responsibilities that we really should adhere to, because otherwise, we can’t call ourselves User Experience designers. If we’re not holding ourselves to the mark and accepting those responsibilities, then we’re not really doing our job.
There are also responsibilities that go beyond the basics, the fundamental anchors that underpin our profession. While the anchors are important, they’re only the result of our process: discovery, definition, development, and delivery.
Without these, there’s no implementation of ind.ie’s Ethical Manifesto. As discoverers we have a responsibility to learn as much as we possibly can about the context we’re focused on, as well as the users that belong in that context. 18.3% of the Australian population is disabled. 350,000 are visually impaired or blind.
During my cursory glance of the results of a ‘design ethics’ Google search, I saw that most of the things displayed were very, VERY visual design-heavy. Very. I saw some elementary things about how the user should be catered to and how they should enjoy the experience and all that, but the explicit conversation of ethics is really only talked about in the context of which colour a button should be, how copy should read, and whether check boxes should default to filled-in.
There seems to be some 75% of the entire design process that’s gone mostly ignored during talks of ethics in design. We research, we define the problem, we develop solutions, AND deliver the final product. The way buttons look only comes into the last quarter of that process.
After another Google search of ‘research ethics’, I found what I was looking for. But we’ve come to the point where ‘Dark Patterns’ have become synonymous with ‘design ethics’. While professionals might know all about the ethical aspects of research, I’d wager most people don’t think about it. Is there a danger that the ethics of our vital research process will be eclipsed by the sexier topic of colours and lights and how Dark they are?
Due to the nature of our work, our ethics doesn’t come down to one designer and one user. Our ethics affect everyone.
Should the general public and newer designers have a broader understanding of what’s right(ish) and wrong(ish) in our field, seeing as, at the end of the day, it truly, genuinely affects them?
Should we try harder to let them in?
Do they need to be let in at all?
Is it up to me to answer these questions?
No. It isn’t. Because it’s suddenly become very late and I’m suddenly very lacking in coffee.