Human endeavour sometimes leads to unintended consequences. Bringing rabbits into Australia late in the 17th century, for example, led to an uncontrolled infestation due to lack of local predatory species. Millions of rabbits were culled every year without having any noticeable effect on overall numbers.

And just as unintentional thinking sometimes leads to disaster, unethical design may lead to dire, or at the very least, detrimental results for the end user. Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, exposed this truth in his recent essay about how technology hijacks our minds. Harris says “This is exactly what product designers do to your mind. They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.”

Design ethics is a complex and far-reaching issue, one that fazes system designers, inventors, and innovators the world over every day. In many cases, creativity is led by a “because we can” attitude, rather than a “should we do it?” attitude. Is a final product the mere fulfilment of the designer’s own intentions, or is it designed to elicit a better customer experience?

It is important to understand that design is the ultimate result of a chain of decisions. And that those decisions are guided by an intention of achieving something, be it good or bad. Even these concepts are ambivalent. Good for the user, the designer or the organisation that hired the designer?

To put this into perspective, the latest Snapchat update became embroiled in controversy. Snapchat quantifies individual popularity into a single number, deemed the “Snapchat score”. This number theoretically indicates how popular users are. The algorithm that calculates this score is a trade secret. But the undeniable fact is that the higher the number, the more popular users are ranked and perceived by their peers. The quickest way to raise the score? By using the app more often.

So questioning and considering that intention at an early stage is a vital piece of the design puzzle. Barry McAdam, Academic Leader at Digital Skills Academy, makes several observations on this:

  • Traditionally you never always knew what your completed design would look like early on; the process you used helped ensure success. The impact of modern technologies means that you now have to question your process more often and at an earlier stage.
  • Once your design is published, you have to take ownership over it
  • You need to consider the consequences of releasing design in the public domain
  • Think about the action the end user needs to take when viewing your design

In the context of Social Media, for example, Barry makes a clear point: “Good design is inherently a catalogue of intentions centred on user goals. User experience on social media platform can be designed for other specific purposes. Whether to increase engagement or to ensure users spend longer engaging with the platform.” Barry’s words raise a clear question: Whose needs are catered for here? The users’, since they perceive they are doing what they want to do, or the designers’, since users are merely following a carefully programmed design pattern?

The great dilemma: good personal ethics vs. good corporate ethics

Ethics are a set of very personal determinations and ideas about how things in life should be. But in corporate land, senior management usually has the final say in design guidelines, and these usually overrule any personal reservations. What tends to happen is a gradual dilution of (moral) principles. Be it because of financially or politically driven motivations, a decision is taken even in the face of potentially devastating consequences. Morthon-Thiokol’s bow to NASA’s pressure to launch the Challenger shuttle in 1986 is a perfect example of this.

Design sometimes does lead to unforeseen or unpredictable consequences, but as long as ethics are an inherent part of the design process, the result will comply with moral standards.

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