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

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

This is the final piece of the story I’ve been telling. It started with an explanation of some of the problems currently present in the implementation of UX practices. I then described various ethical problems in technology companies today.

I will now explain how UX folks are uniquely situated to notice ethical concerns. I will also explain how, despite their unique perspective, I do not think that UX folks should be the gatekeepers of ethics. Much like UX itself, ethical considerations are too likely to be ignored without buy-in from the top levels of a company.

Ethics and UX

Ethics and user experience are tied together for a few reasons:

  • Folks who are working on the user experience of a piece of software will often have a good view on the ethics of it — if they stop to consider it.
  • UX folks are trained to see the impact of a product on people’s lives. We are a bridge between software and humans, and ethical concerns are also in that space.
  • Like UX, ethics needs buy-in throughout the company. It can otherwise be difficult or impossible to enforce, as ethical considerations can be at odds with short-term company priorities like shareholder profits or introducing convenient (but potentially problematic) features.

Given that UX folks are in a great position to see ethical problems as they come up, it may be tempting to suggest that we should be the ones in charge of ethics. Unfortunately, as I described in an earlier section, many UX folks are already struggling to get buy-in for their UX work. Without buy-in at the top level, we are unlikely to have the power to do anything about it, and may risk our jobs and livelihoods.

This is made worse by the fact that there are a lot of new UX folks in the Boston area. If they are on the younger side of things, they may not realize that they are being asked to do the impossible, or that they can push back. New UXers may also have taken out student loans, whether as an undergraduate student or to enable a career change into UX, thereby effectively becoming indentured servants who can’t even use bankruptcy to escape them.

Even new and career-changer UX folks who have not taken out loans can feel like they can’t afford to annoy the company they’re working for. Given how few entry-level jobs there are — at least in the Boston area — it’s a huge risk for someone new to UX to be taking.

The risk of pointing out ethical problems is even worse when you are talking about an ethnic minority or others who are in an especially vulnerable position, and who may also be more likely to notice potential problem-areas.

Individual UX folks should not be the sole custodians of ethics nor of the commitment to a better user experience. Without buy-in at high levels of the company, neither of these are likely to work out well for anyone.

Who should be in charge of software ethics?

Who, then, should be the custodians of keeping software from causing harm?

The UXPA Professional Organization

The UXPA organization has a code of conduct, which is excellent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really have much to do with the ethical concerns that have come up lately. At best, we have the lines “UX practitioners shall never knowingly use material that is illegal, immoral, or which may hurt or damage a person or group of people.” and “UX practitioners shall advise clients and employers when a proposed project is not in the client’s best interest and provide a rationale for this advice.” However, these are relevant to the problem at hand only if a UX practitioner can tell that something might cause harm, or if a client’s best interest matches up with the public’s best interest.

The code of conduct in question may not be specific enough, either: the main purpose of such a code of conduct is to offer practitioners a place to refer to when something goes against it. It is not clear that this code offers that opportunity, nor is it really a UX professional’s job to watch for ethics concerns. We may be best positioned, and we may be able to learn what to look for, but ethical concerns are only a part of the many tasks a UX professional may have.

Companies Themselves

A better question might be: how do we encourage companies adopt and stick to an ethics plan around digital products? Once something like that is in place, it becomes a _lot_ easier for your employees to take that into account. Knowing what to pay attention to, what areas to explore, and taking the time to do so would be a huge improvement.

Maybe instead of asking UX folks to be the custodians of ethics (also here), we can encourage companies to pay attention to this problem. UX folks could certainly work with and guide their companies when those companies are looking to be more ethically conscious.

I’m not at all certain what might get companies to pay attention to ethics, except possibly for things like the current investigation into the effects of Russian interference in our politics. When it’s no longer possible to hide the evil that one’s thoughtlessness — or one’s focus on money over morals — has caused, maybe that will finally get companies to implement and enforce clear, ethical guidelines.

What do you think?

What are your thoughts on how — or even if — ethics should be brought to the table around high tech?

Thank you to Alex Feinman and Emily Lawrence for their feedback on this entry!