How to Conduct a Design Ethics Heuristic Evaluation

Matthew Stephens
Jul 22, 2019 · 5 min read

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”

-Margaret J. Wheatley

Why design ethics matter?

20 years ago, the tech scene was, as John Maeda described it, “Undefined, aimless, driven by tech geeks who knew very little about design.” Guided by the mantra of “move fast and break things”, this era was defined by endless optimization resulting in products focused solely on increasing engagement and improving the bottom line. The well-being of end users was often the first to be sacrificed in these situations.

Looking at the landscape now, the effects seem obvious. From fake news to video game addiction, the tech world is now plagued by products that failed to think ahead. As designers, we find ourselves in a position of power that we’ve never had before. Other professions (doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc.) have addressed this by integrating a code of conduct into their formal education and day-to-day process. It’s time that we, as creators of these products, use these frameworks and start to take responsibility for our actions. It’s time that we fundamentally change how our decisions are made and start to think about how we are impacting the lives of the people we are designing for.

To do this, I propose we systemize the way we evaluate our design decisions. For those that might not be familiar with heuristics, they are “a set of practical rules of thumb that aid decision-making in order to obtain a particular goal”. The original usability heuristics, defined by Jakob Nielsen over 25 years ago, have been a fundamental guide for the human-centered design movement and I believe that ethical heuristics can be just as foundational for creating products that benefit humanity while avoiding unintended consequences.

Example of a Design Ethics Heuristic Evaluation
Example of a Design Ethics Heuristic Evaluation

How it Works

Before you start, either copy our Miro Template or use/print this Google Slides presentation.

  1. Time needed: 60–90 minutes
  2. Supplies needed: whiteboard, sticky notes, markers, stickers for voting

Step 1 — Introduction (5 minutes)

Begin the exercise by explaining why design ethics are important to the company. Use examples, such as current scandals within your industry or anecdotes from previous companies, then ask the stakeholders to imagine similar worst-case scenarios that your company might face (think of your favorite Black Mirror episode.)

Step 2 — Describe the Heuristics

Starting with the first heuristic, explain each objective (row 1) and the associated questions we can ask to raise issues related to this heuristic (row 2). Ensure that all team members are aligned before moving forward.

Step 3 — Fill out the Board (~4 minutes each)

Ask the participants to think of risks that your company faces, as it relates to each heuristic. Using one sticky note per idea, have them complete the sentence “We’re at risk because…” writing as many as they can in 2 minutes . Set a timer for 4 minutes and switch halfway through to reframe the scenario, focusing on opportunities. Ask participants to complete the sentence: “We have an opportunity because...” After 4 minutes, the first column should be filled out with both risks and opportunities for the first heuristic. Move onto the next column and repeat steps 2 and 3 until the board is completed.

Step 4 — Present Ideas (10 minutes)

Start a timer for 10 minutes and read each sticky note aloud, discussing the idea as you go. Allow the author to provide clarity or answer questions if there’s any confusion. Group similar ideas together as you go.

Step 5 — Sticker Vote (10 minutes)

Once all the ideas have been presented, hand out 12 stickers (6 if you have a large group) to each person and instruct everyone to silently think of the most important risks on the board. Explain that the sticky notes with the most votes will be addressed first. After a minute or two, have everyone place 6 stickers simultaneously to “cast their vote”. (It’s important to vote all at once to avoid biasing your results.) Repeat the process for opportunities using the remaining 6 stickers.

Step 6 — Evaluate and Prioritize Results (10 minutes)

Once everyone has placed their stickers, separate the sticky notes with the most votes and place them together off to the side of the board. Starting with the winner, go down the list and discuss each one, placing opportunities on an “Effort & Opportunity Matrix” and risks on an “Effort & Risk Matrix”. (Examples below, but you can also learn more here.) The idea is fairly simple, you are plotting based on two factors: effort required to implement vs potential opportunity or risk. Once all stickies are in place, write down all those in the top left quadrant, as you will address these first.

Examples of an Effort & Opportunity Matrix + Effort & Risk Matrix (Facebook Use Case)
Examples of an Effort & Opportunity Matrix + Effort & Risk Matrix (Facebook Use Case)

Step 7 — Next Steps (5 minutes)

Using the list you just created, start a discussion to come up with your action items. How can you address these issues, who needs to be involved, and what does the timeline look like for each?

Conclusion

Conclude the evaluation by thanking everyone and reminding the participants that conducting these evaluations will only shed light on decisions that have already been made. What’s more important is that they integrate this way of thinking into their daily process and get ahead of possible ethical issues before they are built.

After the meeting, make sure to send an email that includes a printable list of heuristics, the action items and notes, plus a photo of the final board.

Further Reading

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