“Design ethics” is one of those phrases that many 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 a junior designer 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 onto an opportunity to design a gamified social activism platform from the ground up. I jumped at the chance, ecstatic to experiment with my newfound knowledge of human psychology.
uCampaign was an app that awarded points to campaign supporters when they invited friends to use it, advocated on social media, and even physically checked in at voting centers. I was the sole designer, and it was my responsibility to architect the fundamental experience. When I met with the CEO, the app’s right-leaning orientation became apparent as we discussed potential clients: small, local, Republican organizations. Although many of my personal beliefs ran counter to these organizations, the prospect of designing a real, successful product dampened any internal conflict I had about its mission.
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 his campaign had used to organize voters. I was shocked to discover that it was the very app I had designed.
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 the app had been used by 200,000+ supporters of Trump, the NRA, Brexit, and other conservative campaigns, nearly all of which I personally oppose. It was surreal. I never imagined it could be this successful.
The 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 twentysomething, self-taught 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 also have to examine 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.