Design Ethics: How I Unknowingly Designed Donald Trump’s Presidential Campaign App

“Design ethics” is one of those phrases that most of us brush over as too… intangible, too abstract, or even maybe too obvious; we would never knowingly design something we believe to be negative, right? But reality is much more nuanced than that…

In 2014 I was just a junior designer in an insignificant position whose work couldn’t possibly have any significant impact on the world, let alone contribute to global political discourse… or so I thought. Around that time, the concept of gamification was gaining traction and I had just finished a course on it with Kevin Werbach. Soon after, I stumbled on to an opportunity to design a gamified social activism platform from the ground up. Needless to say I was ecstatic to jump at the chance and experiment with my newfound knowledge of human psychology.

uCampaign was an app where campaign supporters could earn points by inviting friends, advocating on social media and even physically checking-in at voting centers. I was the sole designer and my responsibility was to architect the fundamental experience. As I met with the CEO, the app’s Right-leaning orientation became apparent as we discussed potential clients which were small, local republican organizations. Although many of my personal beliefs ran counter, dismissal of significant success combined with excitement subdued any internal conflict I had about its mission; my contributions would never accumulate enough to matter in the grand scheme, I thought.

I delivered my final designs, we completed the project, and life moved on.

Here’s the full case study:

Years passed and the project became a distant memory.

Shortly after Trump’s presidential win, a friend sent me an article about an app used to by his campaign to organize voters. He and I were both shocked to discover that I had designed it.

I started Googling and discovered that the app was covered by nearly all major publications- from CNN, and Bloomberg to Gizmodo, and Business Insider. I learned that app had been used by 200K+ users of Trump, NRA, Leave Brexit, and various conservative campaigns- nearly all of which I personally oppose. It was surreal. I never imagined it could be this successful.

Moral of the User Story

It’s far too easy to justify work that doesn’t feel quite right in favor of career advancement, learning opportunities, a paycheck, or a combination of all three. The fact that an inexperienced 20-some year old, self-thought designer can influence thousands of people is a testament to the power of design. So much of product design revolves around assuming worst case scenarios, but when it comes to ethical decisions we have to assume best case scenarios; ask yourself:

“If the product I’m working on takes off and is used by 100 million people, would the world be better off? Would I proudly take credit for my work and be happy with the outcome?”

Assume it will be used for its intended purposes.

Assume it will be used for unintended purposes.

Assume it will be exploited.

Assume your work will be abused.

Assume responsibility.