If 2018 taught the tech world anything, it’s that the days of free-wielding creation and invention is behind us and that accountability is being seen as a new marker for every technology company.

Between unregulated media power and failure to instil ethics from the top down, to data breaches and the threat of AI and robotics on jobs – it’s clear tech companies ability to choose between ethics and profits is becoming blurred.

The last year has definitely seen some of the tech giants of Silicon Valley realising the need to embrace ethics, like Google releasing a set of ethical principles in June 2018 to govern the the company’s work with artificial intelligence.

Director of Technology Ethics, Brian Patrick Green, defines technology ethics as “the application of ethical thinking to the practical concerns of technology”.

With user experience and design becoming an increased focus for tech companies and designers find themselves in more powerful decision-making positions, some are beginning to question whether they have had any effect on the negative events that have occurred through this technology in the first place.

So, is it time to question the ethics of UX design?

As a part of their daily routine, user experience designers “hack” into the thought patterns of their users. When they succeed, it very likely results in the success of the product itself.

Speaking with Mobiddiction’s UX designer, Amy Howard, it’s clear ethical UX design is something that should definitely be top of mind.

“UX Design can drive people’s responses and create new habits. Not a lot of people realise how quickly their way of thinking and reacting changes when they use technology. Small actions and associations start to become ingrained in our everyday behaviour and we take those into other aspects of our lives”.

This is especially true when it comes to everyday tech.

What does an ethical UX challenge look like?

Independent designer, Hila Yonatan, defines an ethical challenge as the moment the designer crosses the line between making seemingly-motiveless decisions that serve the interests of the system over those of the user.

Some decisions may result in a limitation of the users’ actions or doing things that the user would not necessarily choose.

The area of ethics in user experience design lies on a scale that ranges from providing complete freedom for users, up to making all the decisions for them.

UX designers can control the user in a number of ways, like deciding how limiting the onboarding process should be or what data to display and what to hide or what should be animated so as to create an emotion before making a decision.

As Uncle Ben famously told Peter Park aka Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility and it’s why Amy stresses the importance of embracing ethics as part of any design approach.

“When UX Design crosses over from designing for the good of the user, to hindering the user or pushing the agenda or interests of a company or organisation, it is great cause for concern.”

“I feel it’s important to embrace ethics as a part of the UX Design approach and put more emphasis on educating designers from an early stage around the importance and impact of ethics, so we could turn this around to be more proactive and shape the user experience to be a positive and empowering one.”

She goes on to say this “will help UX Designers understand the power and responsibility they hold, and how to make sure they design responsibly and for the good of the user, and not to force or control behaviour for an ulterior motive.”

It’s worth arguing: what can be done to control these design implications before anything goes wrong? Are there steps designers can take to prevent breaching ethical lines?

Amy says she always come back to the same three questions

  1. Is this in the best interest of the user?
  2. Is this helping the user?
  3. What problem is it solving for the user?

“These questions should always be in the mind of designers. Designers should always undertake a process to understand the user in order to design the best ethical experience. I always make sure to used the Design Thinking Process below, which focuses on the user at every stage. However, even then we must stop and reflect on our actions as part of a bigger picture.”

Empathise > Define > Ideate > Prototype > Test > Repeat

Sticking to this design process keeps Amy on the proactive front, which means she can be constantly assessing our technology and designs to make sure the needs of the user are still being met and responsible design decisions are made.

As Marli Mesibov says: “Good design doesn’t force users to pick up the device that we designers want them to pick up; good design gives users the best of what a company has to offer on the device that the user wants to use at that point in their journey.”

Right now, the tech industry is having to face up to what it’s built but it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing scenario. Starting with UX design, ethical tech is possible and 2019 can be the year to prove it.

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