Reflecting on ethics in design
One of our values as a design team is to make moral and responsible choices in our practice. Last year, we held an event to deepen our awareness and understanding of what this means.
It seems that, for every darling of Silicon Valley, every successful Wall Street debutante, there’s a story of scandal, of intentional wrongdoing or — at the very least — unintentional, unfortunate consequences. Facebook’s disregard for user privacy, particularly as it relates to advertisers, was revealed as early as 2007, when companies were able to track and share the purchases of Facebook users. From the Cambridge Analytica catastrophe to the continued and consistent refusal to take accountability or to implement material changes, Facebook has become the poster child for unethical tech. Amazon’s mistreatment of warehouse workers is notorious, and last summer, Prime Day inaugurated global strikes. Airbnb was accused of removing thousands of illegal apartment listings in New York City in 2016 before releasing a report to demonstrate that it was abiding by city regulations. Uber, an exemplar of unethical leadership and practices, has been the subject of multiple protests and lawsuits over the years, and WeWork’s incredulous IPO filing rounded out 2019.
Amidst this drama, my colleague, Kat, and I decided to host a conversation about ethics in health tech. We hoped that, “through sharing our individual experiences and perspectives, we’ll encourage open and thought-provoking exchanges; enable us to better understand the multi-dimensional issues of ethics in health tech; and help inform our work.”
It matters to us that we do good work. We define this both by measurements of quality and by measurements of impact — on the people we’re designing for, the communities surrounding them, on society, the environment, the planet. But the more we thought about this aspiration, the more overwhelming and unmanageable it felt. Amidst the noise about Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and other newsworthy technology companies, the path forward began to disappear from view, overgrown with controversies about privacy policies, data collection and utilization, and informed consent — topics that were all on the agenda for the night.
Here was a musing about the tension between morality and ethics — morality can be cultural and what is considered moral in the United States may be judged as immoral in Norway or vice versa — can ethics be similarly open to (cultural) interpretation? Here, a point about the absence of regulation in our industry, particularly when compared to adjacent industries — medical ethics are stringent, (some) engineers take The Obligations of the Engineer oath.
A space for dialogue
Fifteen or so of our first and second-degree connections — product managers, designers, founders, copywriters, strategists — attended the event. We introduced ourselves between mouthfuls of Goat Hill Pizza, a neighborhood establishment.
Kat and I had agreed to begin the evening by establishing a shared definition of ethics, in order to provide a shared foundation to base our discourse. We posed the first question, “what does it mean to be an ethical corporation?”
- A physician-turned-product-manager answered immediately that an ethical culture needed to come from both top-down and bottoms-up. A “cultural line” needs to be drawn early in the company’s inception and reinforced throughout the company.
- Similarly, a founder of a women’s health startup spoke about the importance of establishing “a plan for accountability,” a method of enforcement of purported ethical standards.
- A founder of a cognitive behavioral therapy company asserted that “picking a business model that’s ethical by definition” is a prerequisite for successfully and consistently operating as an ethical business.
Ethics in design is ambiguous
The conversation took gentle turns, momentarily diverted by anecdotes, articles, and tangents. Here was a musing about the tension between morality and ethics — morality can be cultural and what is considered moral in the United States may be judged as immoral in Norway or vice versa — can ethics be similarly open to (cultural) interpretation? Here, a point about the absence of regulation in our industry, particularly when compared to adjacent industries — medical ethics are stringent, (some) engineers take The Obligations of the Engineer oath.
Think about the long-term
A friend who had just published a book on egg freezing suggested that whether a decision is ethical should be considered within a long-term timeframe — how will this decision reverberate in five years? In ten years? How will its effects ripple? We should, she suggested, “assume that [your users] will one day care,” about issues that might seem ambiguous today, such as their privacy or their data. Play the long game. After all, there are other ramifications aside from immediate metrics and revenue that can affect financial health.
The reasonable person versus the bad actor
Another attendee suggested that companies should evaluate ethics from the perspective of “the reasonable person” — “where does the reasonable person sit?” He felt that, from the reasonable person’s perspective, the uproar around data privacy was exaggerated. One, he reasoned, it’s now inevitable that our data is “out there,” unless “you’re only spending cash.” And two, the worst that can happen was medical fraud or identity theft. He was challenged by several attendees. Data privacy “isn’t a big deal” to the reasonable person, if the reasonable person is fortunate enough not to belong in a vulnerable group, a demographic that can be discriminated against or persecuted, including minority groups or those with chronic illness, disabilities, or abusive relationships. A product manager at Gusto suggested that instead of the reasonable person, we should be designing with “the bad actor” in mind.
Understanding our responsibility
Two hours later, we hadn’t gotten too far from where we started. A founder of a rare disease data collection company offered “transparency” as a tenet of ethics. But, what is transparency? What happens when you, as a company, are transparent, but the user doesn’t understand the information that you’re conveying? Is it then the company’s responsibility to also educate? How can we ensure that our users “get it,” especially when there’s so much to get? How can we ever guarantee informed consent — or informed anything? And is it our responsibility to do so?
“Integrity has no need of rules”
The question turned out to be much like asking, what is love? Or, what does faith look like? The actual manifestation of ‘ethical’ seems to be as nebulous as any of the abstract yet essential concepts underpinning the human experience. By the end of the event, one question turned into an endless number of other questions. For hours, excited voices layered over each other, and the conversation catalyzed by our first question showed no signs of fading.
At the end of the event, while we hadn’t gotten to a shared understanding of an ethical corporation, we did begin to draw, together, the rough outlines of a definition.
- An ethical corporation operates with the less informed user in mind. It errs on the side of providing disclosures, guidance, and education.
- An ethical corporation is transparent with its users. It explains how information is collected and utilized, as well as what individual actions mean. If it provides defaults, the defaults are chosen with (the best approximation of) the user’s best interest in mind.
- An ethical corporation gives the user control. It empowers users to make decisions for themselves and to take control of any information and data associated with them.
- An ethical corporation builds safeguards against the bad actor and safety nets for worst case scenarios.
- An ethical corporation understands that it does not exist in a vacuum. It takes history, context, environment into account. It keeps up.
- An ethical corporation holds itself accountable, by developing a business model, implementing metrics, and establishing structures that will enforce ethical decision-making.
It wasn’t much, but it was a beginning. These six tenets began to crystallize for us a definition of an ethical corporation. Sustained by pizza and wine, we could have continued deep into the night, but, by 9PM, the practical realities of the workday were beginning to take shape, overtaking our philosophical musings. We walked out of our glowing Dogpatch office into the dark, each finding our way home. Kat and I felt energized by everything we’d heard that night, and awakened to the need for continued dialogue about ethics in our design community and beyond.
We’d love to add more voices to what we’ve heard so far — how do you define an ethical company?