Ethics Explained To Designers

A series of articles about ethics and moral philosophy (for designers) that aim to go beyond dark patterns.

Kevin Richard
Mar 3, 2020 · 4 min read
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Learn More About Ethics

Hi, Kevin here.

The recent gain in interest of designers for ethics is an interesting by-product of the global realization of the various harms and unintended consequences (externalities) caused by the excesses of certain intrusive technics.

Although, this is not a recent topic. Designers across the world have interests in ethics for many years and tons of books have been written on this very subject over decades. It is worth noting, however, that designers’ sensibility, interest, and care for this subject vary a lot depending on many factors: localization, culture, society, industry, (etc) or simply contextual triggers.

Another angle to this is the increased availability of big data systems and the infiltration of artificial intelligence (AI) into software-enabled systems. Many concerns related to ethics regarding software engineering revolve around the ethics of AI and mostly focus on the fair and unbiased use of data. Corollary to this is obviously the subject of (data) privacy.

This convergence of interests towards ethical considerations in tech (ethics, morals, values, etc.) from both business professionals, academics, and society consequently brings lots of attention in the places where decisions seem to be made on a day-to-day, product or service level basis: design, engineering, and “front-line” management. For better and worse.

While today’s “ethics” in design seems closely (and inevitably) linked to dark patterns, it is only the tip of the iceberg. It brings an interesting but narrow focus on actual practices and technics used in user interfaces (UI ) to trick users to perform something that, in the short term, benefits the business while deserving the users (UX).

I will, however, try to separate the two subjects that are not exclusively related. To be clear, I will not talk much about dark patterns. Not because it is not interesting, but because of these few reasons:

  1. There have been already extensive writings and discussions about dark patterns over recent years. Some great books are available that cover the subject very well and in great detail.
  2. The intentionality and specificity of “dark patterns” cannot be overstated (see here, here). While I’m sure some companies willing to “growth hack” their business at any cost may be attracted to such practices, there are also tons of other situations that lead to negative outcomes, yet not covered by dark patterns and which are still part of ethics.
  3. Ethics (and values) are about how we make decisions and how they lead to positive or negative outcomes by their standards. Ethics are about how we define what is “good” and “bad”, what is “desirable/preferable” or not, and how we act upon these definitions. Dark patterns are, therefore, a subset of such considerations.

For that, I will focus on what philosophers discuss for centuries: moral philosophy. Through a series of articles, I will cover the basic themes of the various movements and ideologies in moral philosophy. This will help understand some principles behind some positions of today’s discussion and what are some of their limitations.

Design deontology? Ethical principles? Utilitarianism? Design virtues? What are they and what are the differences?

Available Articles

I will update this list regularly.

On the same subject 👇👇

About The Series

I will publish here and on Design & Critical Thinking the articles regularly over the coming days, weeks (months?). This is a broad topic with a lot to cover, so expect some length extensive articles as well as shorter ones on more specific principles or concepts. So stay tuned!

I am not a moral philosopher. As such, I write here as a humble learner, largely inspired by referential books and writings. Through my readings and researches on the subject of morals and ethics, I discovered views I was unaware of and others not unfamiliar with but rarely as well articulated. I sincerely hope you will too.

That being said, and for full transparency, I tend towards the consequentialist stand of ethics which, to my own understanding, better acknowledge the complexity of the world.

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Kevin Richard

Written by

Senior Designer & Strategist in the🇨🇭Banking industry. Critical / Design / Systems thinker, learner, practitioner —Design as a catalyst for change.

Design & Critical Thinking

D&CT is a community about building a shared understanding & collective knowledge at the intersection of different practices. We want to cross the boundaries of design, innovation, tech, change, management, ethics, (and more) to engage in discussions that bridge disciplines.

Kevin Richard

Written by

Senior Designer & Strategist in the🇨🇭Banking industry. Critical / Design / Systems thinker, learner, practitioner —Design as a catalyst for change.

Design & Critical Thinking

D&CT is a community about building a shared understanding & collective knowledge at the intersection of different practices. We want to cross the boundaries of design, innovation, tech, change, management, ethics, (and more) to engage in discussions that bridge disciplines.

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