Tiny Tactic

How to Design With Ethics

Establish your values and find the design opportunities to match

Christian Beck
Feb 21, 2019 · 7 min read

Where the challenge in design ethics lies

As I see ethics in design, they start first with figuring out what your own values are as a person and how that translates to yourself as a professional. Then you see how those align to your company or product. And this translation between your personal/professional values and that of your companies is where the fuzzy area of design ethics begins.

Design ethics is not about the inherent value of the work itself, but whether the work you do choose to do aligns with your own values and a broader set of industry values.

For example, I have a professional value that any product or service I work on must serve people, not replace them. This is more relevant every year as robotics, AI, and machine learning advances exponentially. And even before the current exponential growth of these industries began to take shape, I was cognizant of the fact that all technology will lead to some amount of job loss on a large level. Whether it’s looming in 1800’s Britain, or semi-autonomous driving for today’s truckers; when technology is intended to help one person, it often does so at the cost of another. But with that in mind, I still try to abide by this personal value so that my work is always being driven by the perspective that I want technology to assist people and make their work more enriching.

Being agnostic in technology is no longer viable

There are some companies and products that at worst want to put people out of jobs, and in other cases are agnostic of those effects. And this is where ethics in design come into play. It’s obvious to know when to avoid a job when the values are in direct conflict with your own, but the real challenge — and why I’m writing this article — is understanding the fuzzy area when a company or product maintains no position on a value that you have.

Using ethics to create positive change

This brings another subtle nuance to understanding how ethics can affect a designer’s work. In the previous example of Facebook, it’s unfair to make a broad-sweeping judgment of the entire company. I’m certainly a vocal critic, but to be fair, that’s based on the little knowledge I have of what is truly happening on the inside. If you are passionate about helping changing the course of depression and social media, you can either view Facebook as the worst place to work, or the best opportunity to make real change. It all depends on what you’re doing for Facebook.

Tactics for designing with ethics

I decided to write this article because I hear so many designers struggling to understand how design ethics fit into their work. Honestly, while I tend to feel good about my own work, these questions caused me to reflect on how I maintain my own design ethics. This is my best attempt at breaking down how I think I practice ethical design.

Read

You cannot form your own value system, let alone ethics without reading (read my article on how to read!). And I’m not just talking about reading about ethics themselves. I’m talking about industry trends, research on human behavior, large-scale economic, climate, and political issues. In design and technology, the pace is fast and it requires you keep up with these macro-trends to understand how your day-to-day fits.

Understand how a business makes money

If you are worried about your own work, then learn how your own company makes money. This is the first step in understanding where a company’s underlying values come from. It’s one thing for a CEO to say they take screen addiction seriously, but it’s another when the company’s business model relies solely on increasing the amount of time a user spends looking at ads.

Embrace a position, but hold it loosely

Or the oft-repeated, “strong opinions, loosely held.” Earlier I pointed out what I see as the danger of being agnostic about technology when you work in it. Being uninformed is bad, having no informed opinion is worse. Think about your role as a designer working on something touching hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. It’s unacceptable that the work you produce — which is changing other people’s lives — is created by someone or some organization that doesn’t have an opinion. Features, button placement, workflows…these all require intentional design. Ultimately this is why ethics matter in design.

UX Power Tools

A publication for designers, written by designers.

Christian Beck

Written by

By day, executive designer at Innovatemap where I help tech companies design marketable products. By night, co-founder of UX Power Tools.

UX Power Tools

A publication for designers, written by designers.

Christian Beck

Written by

By day, executive designer at Innovatemap where I help tech companies design marketable products. By night, co-founder of UX Power Tools.

UX Power Tools

A publication for designers, written by designers.

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