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How Designers Take Control

Design, Ethics, and Technology, Part 2

By Betty Zhang

In part one of this series, I introduced some of the major themes and issues relating to design, technology, and ethics — if you missed it, check it out here. It’s clear that ethics in design are more and more important, but when it comes to business, it’s not always easy to manage and balance both the interests of the users and the client.

So, shifting away from theory and abstract discussion, I interviewed TribalScale designers about their experiences with client work, their own moral compass, and what happens when these two don’t line up. I wanted to open up an important conversation about the personal challenges of ethics and client-based design. Every designer has different opinions about their role and personal morals in client work, but it’s clear that we all need to consider both the negative and positive impacts of our work when designing and building digital products intended for real world users.

[The following is synthesized and compiled from interviews with TribalScale designers.]

Fortunately, many of our designers have only had good experiences with client work, but it’s not totally uncommon to be put on a project that conflicts with the designer’s morals. I asked TribalScale designers to share such an experience — in their TribalScale life or from a past life.

When I first started out as a designer, I just needed a job and I needed money. So, I started working for an institution whose business model I didn’t agree with. To get through this, I told myself little lies, for example “I’ll do this for a little while, save up, and then get out.” It’s hard to swallow but sometimes you just have to do what’s asked of you, especially when your career is just starting.

I knew a project crossed my red-line and I said no from the get-go. I’m lucky to work for a company that listens to me and empowers me to voice my concerns and say no.

Sometimes, a client will want a feature that’s specifically addictive. They want a “crack app.” As the designer, you know this is bad for the user’s mental health, or that it won’t benefit the user.

With big data, some organizations are just collecting and collecting user data and are not using it for anything meaningful. I worked on a project that collected data as part of a loyalty program. Users had to submit their information, but we didn’t provide anything in return for all of their information. This is a huge disservice to the users, I couldn’t help but feel like they were being cheated. It felt really cheap. If collecting user data, you need to give something back. This organization didn’t understand the trade-off and it caused direct internal conflict.

In those situations, are you able to separate your moral compass from the client’s ask? If so, how?

I volunteered to step-in on a project that I knew my co-worker was having a hard time with. I wanted to relieve and help them. I tried to see the project as objectively as possible and just as a task that needed to be completed. I would swap the subject matter and try to see it as something entirely different… but it can still affect you and can make you upset. It’s important to reflect on that and to talk about it.

Often the client and the designer have different core values. For example, the client might just want profit and increased user engagement but I want to build something that makes someone’s life easier. The client’s goal might not be best for the user. At the end of the day, the best you might be able to do is to inform the stakeholder about the consequences of their feature or plan, and you can try to switch their strategy. I would show them user research, give them direct quotes, and try to act as a mediator to adjust their strategy for a better and healthier user experience.

So in some situations, it might be more about finding a balance and negotiating between business value and user priority?

There is a fine balance between what the attention-economy wants, and what people want for their lives. It’s up to the designer to identify their moral compass and try to work within it.

I have a background in business, I think about the business goal of every screen, every button, and I think about how it will affect the bottom line. I’m able to balance this with user needs and wants. Since I understand and appreciate the business angle, I can recommend features that prioritize the user, like accessibility, by framing it in the context of their budget and ‘the customer is always right.’ Then, you can almost always still push for the user. It’s all about your framing and language.

When working with a client, where does a designer have the power to say no and/or challenge the social good of a product?

Every designer has a voice and you can always raise an issue with your team, but then it might be up to the team to respond to it in whatever way is in line with the company. But ultimately, by voicing your opinion, your team will know where you stand. It’s very important to talk about any issues and think about your morals on a personal level and then on the company-level. With that said, designers should know that their views might not be prioritized and that’s okay.

I think designers need to know when to push and pull back. They’re the ones that bring the product to life, so if they don’t speak up, it will impact the end product and the end user. It’s important to raise your opinion and definitely say no if something is against your ethics. You need ask yourself whether you’re willing to sacrifice your morals for the work, and then you can always say no. But there are also broader considerations, like your job and financial security.

The designer isn’t the decision-maker and some businesses just go by the end profit without looking at the qualitative and moral implications. In many situations, it might be better to negotiate and try to understand where others are coming from. Have a conversation about the project, discuss bad ideas, show the research and voice concern. This approach might be more effective in changing the end result.

Conflict doesn’t help, how do you go about taking verbal action on an issue with a client and then working together after?

It’s important that the designer is involved in the project as early as possible. I set expectations at the beginning of any project and tell the client that I am looking to create the best product. I always listen to the client’s perspective and try to communicate any issues early on, as the project goes on, this can get trickier.

You have to assess the person, try to see their side, and adjust your delivery method. Put it in business terms, show the profit and loss, show the objective reasoning for your suggestion, use metrics, data, the buzzwords that might catch them… But the buzzwords have to actually check-out, and make sure you have the research to back up your opinion. If they buy it, they buy it. And if after they’ve seen the facts and the research, and they still don’t want to change their angle, you might just have to accept it. After all, it is the client that makes the majority of the decisions and there might be some other factors at work. To some extent, ethics can be a luxury.

In summary, what does design ethics mean to you?

Ethics are a nice-to-have. My judgement as a designer should be trusted, but decision-makers might not go for it. The reality is that you can’t frame your choices and design recommendations in terms of morals, you have to frame them in business terms.

Design ethics is thinking about and including the user as much as possible. It’s about including as many voices as possible. Ethics involves everything from accessibility, to inclusion and diversity. I’m not sure if designers are more ethical today than they used to be, but I do think such concerns are now being heard by companies. Maybe it’s just a buzzword and it’s ‘hot’ to include ethics in your project, but either way, I believe it’s very important.

I’m realizing that industry is more flexible with ethics than what I was taught in school. In some situations, it’s very clear and necessary to include ethical considerations, but in others it’s not. There are many competing interests — budgets, timelines — and sometimes ethics can be left out. Everyone thinks about design ethics a little bit differently and every company has their own approach. It’s important to work for a company whose approach and perspective on ethics aligns with your own. That’s where you will be empowered to say no to a project, challenge assumptions, and then create products that bring both business and user value.

Special thanks to our interviewees and rockstar designers: Andrea Barros, April Cheng, Eric Chen, Jason Smith, and Tim Ho.

Betty is a Design Strategist at TribalScale Venture Studios working in trend forecasting, product and service strategy and research. As an interaction designer and mixed-media artist, she creates immersive experiences and installations in digital and physical spaces. She is currently exploring gestural interactions, sound installations, and wearable technology.

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