Ethical design

Authors: Ashley Karr
Posted: Thu, July 24, 2014 - 10:29:26

Take away: Something as fundamental to the human experience as ethics ought to be a fundamental part of human-centered design.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,The Gulag Archipelago

For a long while, I have been angry and frustrated with the design process and design community. It seems that our sole purpose is to make things that maximize profits as quickly as possible. User experience research and design is often used as a means to trick, manipulate, and separate people from their money and/or personal information. 

Finally and thankfully, I came to realize the cause of my anger and frustration.


Ethics are almost entirely absent from UX. I have six HCI, UX, and design textbooks and one seminal Air Force report on user interface design within arm’s reach at this very moment. That is a total of seven well-respected texts in our field. Only two of them even mention ethics. Of these two, one textbook has a paragraph on ethics regarding recruiting participants for research. The other has one-and-a-half pages on ethical interaction design, but it fails to even define ethics.

Define ethics

I have decided to do my part in rectifying this situation. I will begin by defining ethics. It is from the Greek work ethos, meaning customs. Ethics are right behaviors according to the customs of a particular group. I like to think of ethical things as thoughts, words, behaviors, designs, systems, and customs that are cumulatively more beneficial to life than they are harmful. Ethics are an essential part of civilization. Without ethics, people would not have ideas of right and wrong. They make society more stable and help people choose right actions over wrong ones. A society without ethics will fail sooner rather than later. It is important to state, however, that customs aren’t necessarily ethical. Often unethical customs inspire social change, movements, and revolutions.

Ethics require constant practice and consideration—like good hygiene. We cannot wash our hands once and expect them to be clean for life. We must wash our hands multiple times a day, every day, in order for our hands to remain clean. With ethics, we cannot engage in one ethical act in our lives and assume that we are forever after an ethical person. We must practice and consider ethics at every turn. As Abraham Lincoln said, “There are few things wholly evil or wholly good. Almost an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.” 

Why ethics are important in our field

There are three reasons why it is imperative that as makers of interactive computing technology we must embed ethics into our culture, methods, and metrics:

  1. First, what we create and put into the world has actual effects on actual people. Interactive designs do things. We need to make sure that our efforts are going into making things that do good things.
  2. Second, computing technology has the ability to amplify human abilities and spread exponentially in record time.
  3. Third, the ability to design and develop computing technology is to today’s world what literacy was two thousand years ago. We are (tech)literate in a world of people who cannot read. We are the leaders and creators of the sociotechnical system in which we now live. We are powerful—more powerful than we even realize. With great power comes great responsibility.

Allies in the field

Very few professionals within our field are actively incorporating ethics into their work. I have managed to find a few, and I will highlight the main objectives of three researchers here. (Please feel free to share with me other professionals working on this topic. I would love to hear from you.)

  1. Florian Egger addresses deceptive technologies. He states there is a fine line between user experience and user manipulation, and insights into user behavior and psychology can be used for ethical or unethical purposes. If designers understand certain “dirty tricks” that their unethical counterparts devise, users can be warned of these practices before falling victim. He also states that persuasion can be used for the good of the user.
  2. Sarah Deighan is conducting research on ethical issues occurring within UX, including how UX professionals view these issues. She is attempting to make ethical resources available for UX professionals.
  3. Rainer Kuhlen wrote The Information Ethics Matrix: Values and rights in electronic environments. He explores new attitudes toward knowledge and information (sharing and open-access) and defines communication rights as human rights. He states that communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need, and the foundation of all social organization. Everyone, everywhere, should have the same opportunity to communicate, and no one should be excluded from the benefits of access to information.

Define Ethical Design

In order to foster the adoption of ethics into our design and development processes, I am creating a conceptual framework called Ethical Design. It allows designers and design teams to create products, services, and systems that do no harm and improve human situations. Ethical design extends to all people and other living things that are in any way involved in the product, service, and/or system lifecycle. Borrowing from About Face by Cooper, Reimann, and Cronin, I explain the meaning of doing no harm and improving the human situation below.

Do no harm

  • Interpersonal harm: loss of dignity, insult, humiliation
  • Psychological harm: confusion, discomfort, frustration, coercion, boredom
  • Environmental harm: pollution, elimination of biodiviersity
  • Social and Societal harm: exploitation, creation or perpetuation of injustice

Improve the human situation

  • Increase understanding: individual, social, cultural
  • Increase efficiency/effectiveness: individuals and groups
  • Improve communication: between individuals and groups
  • Reduce sociocultural tension: between individuals and groups
  • Improve equity: financial, social, legal
  • Balance cultural diversity with social cohesion

What I hope to avoid using Ethical Design

I do not want to make digital junk. I do not want to waste time, money, and energy on things that don’t help anyone in any meaningful way. I don’t want other people to waste their time, money, and energy on those things, either, even if those people are investors with millions, billions, or trillions of dollars to burn. As a specific example, I do not want our transactional system to be based on technology that depends on inconsistent networks, has limited storage, and runs on batteries that die every three hours. Yes, I am talking about mobile payments in general. Smartphones were meant to be auxiliary devices—they were not meant for complete human dependency. We cannot run our lives from our mobile phones, nor can we build ubiquitous and high priority systems, like transactional systems, based upon such technology. It just won’t work. In a handful of limited and specific cases, mobile payments are an interesting option, but on a grand scale, no.

What I hope to achieve with Ethical Design

I want a healthy, happy family and a healthy, long life. I want a safe, clean house in a safe, clean neighborhood with enough room for all of us, including the dog. I want clean water, clean air, safe transportation, education for all, and a good school walking distance from our home. I want decent, clean clothes that keep us protected from the elements and allow us to express ourselves. I want healthy, safe food and enough to sustain ourselves. I want the right to communicate and freedom to retrieve information. I want time to spend with family and friends and time to spend alone in self-reflection. I want a satisfying career that allows me to help other people improve their situation in life. I want the same for everyone else.

In order to make sure I achieve what I have listed in the paragraph above, I am beginning with these three short-term objectives for Ethical Design:

  1. Add ethics as a standard usability requirement and heuristic guideline. 
  2. Include a course on ethics and ethical design in every CS/HCI/UX/HF/IxD program.
  3. Include in all CS/HCI/UX/HF/IxD textbooks a chapter on ethics ethical design.

In conclusion

I will continue to discuss Ethical Design and create methods, metrics, resources, and conversation starters to support others interested in the topic. Please contact me if you are one of those people. Thanks very much for reading and for caring. I appreciate it. 

Posted in: on Thu, July 24, 2014 - 10:29:26

Ashley Karr

Ashley is a UX instructor with GA and runs a UX consulting firm,
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@Richard Anderson (2014 07 24)

Add Jon Kolko to your list. He and I were Co-Editors-in-Chief of interactions awhile back. Here is a quote of his from an interview I did of him and Don Norman:

“Not all problems are equally worth solving. It seems like we’ve taken it for granted that every activity within the context of design is worth doing, whether it is a drinking bottle or a microphone or a website for your band. I don’t know if that is true, and I’d like to challenge it and would like more people to challenge it more regularly. That is the focus of the Austin Center for Design: problems that are socially worth doing, and broadly speaking, that means dealing with issues of poverty, nuitrition, access to clean drinking water, the quality of education, ... These are big, gnarly problems, sometimes called ‘wicked’ problems, and it seems incredibly idealistic to think that designers can solve them—I agree, I don’t think designers can solve them. In fact, I’m not sure anyone can solve them, but I think designers can play a role in mitigating them—a really important role because of all of the design thinking stuff that we’ve already talked about: the power of that can drive innovations that are making millions of dollars for companies; it seems that that same power can be directed in other ways.”

For more, see

(from a GA instructor to your north)