Folks tend to disagree with me whenever I say that user experience design is morally gray: there is no inherent requirement to making user experiences people like and prefer to competing experiences that leave users — morally or ethically — better off. Ethical design is a qualifier.
This is an important distinction and nuance to design work that is critical to accept if we intend to push best practice in a more deliberately ethical direction. It empowers individual designers, teams, companies, entire verticals, even disciplines to differentiate themselves by choosing to design ethically.
Assuming that good user experience design work has good intentions is dangerous — and naive.
This also means we must divorce the relationship by what we do (design to improve the user experience) from how we do it (ethically, or not). It means that to be ethical we must choose to be so at each step of the design process, at each touchpoint between conception and performance of a service.
To frame ethical user experience design like this make it easier to appreciate how difficult it is to create an ethical product or service. Perhaps not by intent — we all think we’re the heroes of our own story — but because the design of a thing is the culmination of a hundred decisions, hard ones. The CEO in the business of providing an ethical service might fail because of decisions made in engineering, or because they chose to design to optimize a conversion metric instead of some other made-up number.
It is for this reason we need to make time and resources available to design the design process, creating systems of checks and balances not just for quality assurance that a button can be pressed, but for ethical stresses.