Digital Ethics: Whose responsibility is it? (1/3)

User Experience (UX) folks may be in the best position to identify ethical issues in their companies. Should it be their responsibility?

This will be a multi-part story.

In this first part, I’m going explain some of the problems inherent in the implementation of UX practices at technology companies today, to provide the background necessary to make my point.

You can also skip ahead to part two, in which I talk about ethics in the tech industry today.

First: Why do Businesses want UX?

Poor user experience = burning your money

Businesses are starting to realize that they need to incorporate UX to retain and increase their customer base. Discussions with Boston-area user experience folks suggests that companies have figured out that they need to have incorporated UX years ago, and that they’re behind.

Many of those businesses are so new to UX that they don’t understand what it means. Part of the reason for this is that ‘UX’ is an umbrella term, typically including:

  • user research
  • information architecture (or IA)
  • interaction design (or IxD)
  • content specialists
  • visual design

In addition, some UX teams include front-end developers, as it can otherwise be difficult to be certain that the developers implementing the interface have a basic understanding of user experience.

User Experience is complicated!

When looking for UX employees, some businesses end up throwing the kitchen sink into their job descriptions, or look for the extremely rare UX unicorn — someone skilled at all parts of UX as well as development. This unfortunately makes it approximately impossible that they will get what they need, or possibly that they will get any decent candidates at all.

Often, people expect the UX unicorn to be able to do all aspects of UX and write code. This version is more reasonable: to understand how coding works, even if you don’t do it.

Other employers prioritize visual or graphic design skills over the skills necessary to understand users, because they have gotten the impression that ‘making it pretty’ will keep their customers from leaving. Often the problem is at a much deeper level: the product in question was never designed with the user’s needs in mind.

Successful UX needs high-level buy-in

Unfortunately, UX professionals brought into a company without buy-in at the top level of the company nearly guarantees that the UX person will fail. In addition to their regular UX work, they will also be stuck with the job of trying to sell UX to the rest of the company. Without support from higher-ups in the company, it is nearly impossible for a single person to make the amount of change necessary.

Surveying local people, I learned that being the only UX person in a small company or startup is probably doable, if the company understands the value you bring. There are fewer people to convince, and usually fewer products to deal with.

However, being the only UX person in a big company will likely be an exercise in frustration and burnout. On top of the fact that you’re trying to do too many different things on your own , you’ve also got to try to keep the bigger picture in mind.

Some important long-term questions include:

  • “What are the right strategic directions to go in?”
  • “Are the things that you are creating potentially going to cause or enable harm?”

The second question brings us to the question of “who in high tech is thinking about the ethics of their creations?”. Unfortunately, too often, the answer is ‘no one’, which I will discuss in Part 2.

Thank you to Alex Feinman and Máirín Duffy for their feedback on this article!