Beyond Principles: A Process for Responsible Tech

Meet the new design process: An upgrade with ethics & digital wellbeing baked in.

In the frenzied quest to keep a moral handle on AI, dozens of groups have organized the collaborative creation of ethical principles. From the Asilomar AI Principles to the IEEEs Ethically-aligned design specification, to the individual efforts of companies like Google and Microsoft to set their philosophical leanings onto paper. We are awash in principles.

While principles are essential, many tech makers are frustrated by how little help they provide in actual practice. Principles must be sufficiently abstract to retain truth across contexts, but this abstraction also leaves them too vague to be useful for specific design decisions on their own.

For example, Microsoft sensibly states “AI systems should treat all people fairly” but what is fair? Is affirmative action fair? Is it fair to violate the rights of an individual on behalf of the many? Anand Rao and Ilana Golbin of PwC point to the fact that “There are at least 20 mathematical definitions of fairness, and when we choose one, we violate some aspect of the others. In other words, it is impossible for every decision to be fair to all parties.” So how exactly might we go about using a principle like this to make a design decision?

Beyond ethical principles, tech makers need actionable methods that fit into their real world practice.

Of course, design contexts are so unique and various that no simple list of guidelines could ever be useful across projects. In other words, you can’t give people ethical design rules to apply everywhere. Design decisions need to be made with sensitivity to context, goals, culture, vision and values.

What you can provide is process.

Responsibility via process

A handful of pioneering efforts to develop tools and collaborative practices for more responsible design have made important headway (see doteveryone, ethicskit.org, IEEEs specifications and Tristan Harris’ Centre for Humane Design). But how do we fit these into our practice? How much do we need to rehaul the way we do things, and how do we know it will work?

As a designer, I know the idea of adding more responsibilities to our plate can be totally overwhelming.

In order to help, together with Rafael Calvo, and with feedback from my colleagues at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge, I begun to evolve the design process by starting with the standard version and incorporating ethics and wellbeing into its fabric.

Our goal was to start with what designers already do, and integrate practices for ethical and wellbeing-supportive design to arrive at a future-ready process for humane and beneficial technology: A responsible design process.

Our definition of responsible design hinges on two components: Wellbeing and Ethics.

Wellbeing as a part of responsible design

Human wellbeing as an essential component of ethics. Wellbeing and specifically, autonomy (one of the three basic psychological needs according to wellbeing theory) are both central to ethical philosophies (eg. Utilitarianism).

Therefore it’s unsurprising that both wellbeing and autonomy are featured in the many sets of ethical technology principles mentioned above. For example, the IEEE defines ethically-aligned design as that which “prioritizes human wellbeing”. We could quibble with the anthropocentricism, but the need to attend to wellbeing is hard to argue with. As such, any responsible or humane design process would need to have support for wellbeing at its core.

However, ethics is more than wellbeing. After all, who’s wellbeing do we mean?

Ethics as a part of responsible design

“When technologies co-shape human actions, they give material answers to the ethical question of how to act.”
— Peter-Paul Verbeek, Materializing Morality

Design, like policy, is often forced to make trade-offs that increase the wellbeing of some a) at the expense of others, b) at the cost of categorical imperatives or c) in spite of side effects. Issues to do with justice, equality, virtues and values arise.

As such, any responsible or humane design process will need to incorporate, if not be centred on, a consideration of the ethical impacts and tensions relating to design decisions and on the values that make decisions about these possible. In other words: conscious and informed ethical decision-making.

While every team and organisation may devise their own answers to ethical dilemmas, they should have a systematic process by which to do so consciously, and rigorously, leaving a record of their process and rationale.

This record can provide the public somewhere to turn for explanations of the thinking behind a decision after the fact, as well as give the design team confidence that such a decision was made, not in haste or ignorance, but in a systematic and considered way.

This will, of course, not guarantee our products will have no negative consequences, but it does allow us to significantly mitigate this risk, to feel assured we’ve acted responsibly, and start our creation off as solidly as possible. This is what technologies have largely failed to do thus far.

The Process

While design processes are as varied as designers themselves, we all share a common understanding of a series of phases that find their way into most, if not all, professional practice. Whether you work in an agile, lean or research-driven environment, your process will probably include some research, ideation, prototyping and testing. The Design Council pulled these commonalities together into their popular Double Diamond:

The Design Council’s Double Diamond maps commonalities of the creative process.

It has also been elaborated on in this popular rendition…

Service Design Double Diamond Process by Kaishin Chu, Service Design Vancouver.

Now what would a responsible version of this process look like? One answer: It would include methods for wellbeing-support and ethical decision-making at each relevant phase. In other words, it might look something like this:

Process map + links to methods at: www.positivecomputing.org/p/process.html

This Responsible rendition of the Double Diamond (we could call it R2D2) provides a loose framework within which a variety of methods and tools can plug in.

For example, my colleagues and I have developed methods for measuring the wellbeing impact of technologies, some of which would slot into the “Wellbeing Impact Evaluation” phase, whereas these wellbeing-supportive design tools might come in handy in the Ideation phase under “Wellbeing framing”.

Likewise, Consequence Scanning (from doteveryone) and the Futures Wheel (at EthicsKit) could be used as methods for “Ethical Impact Analysis”. (See our online library for more resources.)

As you can see, rather than prescribing specific approaches, we deliberately created a process framework that would be as inclusive as possible. We hope this helps support the use of work already being done, as well as innovations that will come in future as we iterate.

R2D2 a responsible technology design mascot?

Of course, having a more clarified process doesn’t suddenly make that process easy to implement. There will still be difficulties to do with buy-in, time and resources, and risks associated with experimentation. Also, some organisations will provide more support for responsible design than others.

Moreover, this is just a design process, so it will need to sit within enterprise-level responsible business processes, which themselves will need to function within regulatory and societal frameworks. It’s a modest slice of a much larger pie. And it’s the first draft of that pie, so we eagerly welcome feedback.

Nevertheless, we have found that mapping out the process has been helpful to our own work. It not only helps with project planning and management, it allows new methods and tools, as they arise, to have a home somewhere in existing practice.

The bottom line is we need a design process that includes the consideration of ethical and wellbeing impact as standard. Only by defining good design as that which is also responsibly produced, can we create a future in which human technologies actually benefit us and our planet.