What Are “Ethics in Design”?

People in the field are calling for more ethical decision-making—but it’s hard to pin down what exactly that means.

In the first photo, a white man puts his hand under an automatic soap dispenser and easily gets soap. In the second photo, a black man puts his hand under the same dispenser but doesn't get any soap; the sensor can't detect his hand. In the third photo, the black man gets soap from the dispenser by covering his hand with a white paper towel.
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Last year, a video posted to Twitter captured two Facebook employees using a soap dispenser in an employee bathroom. The white employee places his hand under the dispenser and receives soap without incident. But when the black employee holds his hand under the dispenser, nothing happens. The sensor cannot recognize his hand.

It was a small example of a problem that plagues the design industry. “If you have ever had a problem grasping the importance of diversity in tech and its impact on society, watch this video,” wrote Chukwuemeka Afigbo, who published it. Afigbo’s interaction with the soap dispenser demonstrates a failure in its design. It’s hard to imagine the same outcome would have occurred if the dispenser’s design team had tested the product with black users, or if the design team consisted of racially diverse employees.

Examples of product design that fail on the ethics front are all too easy to find—like news feeds promoting fake news, ride-hailing companies psychologically exploiting workers, and virtual home assistants perpetuating negative gender stereotypes. It’s not that product designers don’t care about the ethical ramifications of their work—far from it. It’s that, too often, they assume that such considerations fall outside of their job description.

Mike Monteiro, co-founder and design director of Mule Design and author of the influential essay “A Designer’s Code of Ethics,” says that this ignorance has become an issue with the rapid change in scope of design over the past decade. “Designers have been running fast and free with no ethical guidelines,” he told me. “And that was fine when we were designing posters and sites for movies. But now design is interpersonal relationships on social media, health care, financial data traveling everywhere, the difference between verified journalism and fake news. And this is dangerous.”

Increasingly, though, the industry is taking ethics seriously. Every year at SXSW, John Maeda, the global head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic, presents the “Design in Tech Report,” which serves as a kind of State of the Union on design in technology. This year, Maeda focused on inclusion as the future of design. Maeda defines inclusive design as designing products for a broader audience—whether that’s people with disabilities, people living outside of the U.S., people of color, or older people. On his list of “the top 10 most critical issues and challenges currently facing design,” “ethics in design” came in third, behind “design not having a ‘seat at the table’ ” (No. 1), and “diversity in design and tech” (No. 2).

While Maeda said in a direct message over Twitter that he’s not trying to make a business case for ethics in design, his argument at least partially relies on a business imperative: Inclusive design expands your product’s total market. (And in an industry soon to be dominated by artificial intelligence and machine learning, it’s a very useful, very human skill for a designer.) To illustrate the relationship between business and ethics in Maeda’s argument, take his analysis of an adjacent industry: Hollywood. In the final slides of his SXSW report, Maeda references the recent hit movie Black Panther as proof that inclusion pays off financially: A film featuring predominantly black and female characters has earned more than $1 billion worldwide.

Maeda’s argument assumes that a business goal aligns with a moral one. But what about the case of the soap dispenser? A product that can recognize a wider range of skin tones could come with a higher price tag because it requires more advanced optic sensors. Similarly, Facebook and other tech companies that profit from advertising face calls to design less addictive products—an ethical move that would contradict business sense. Monteiro, who has been an advocate for ethics in design for years, points out the danger inherent to this kind of win-win argument: “They say you can’t ignore women because women have a lot of money, you can’t ignore gay people because gay people have a lot of money. So when do we start paying attention to refugees? When do we start paying attention to the poor? The business case can’t be the reason why we start acting like human beings because it leaves a lot of people out in the cold. We have to be better than that.”

Vivianne Castillo, a user experience researcher at Weight Watchers with a background in counseling and human services, had a different reaction than Maeda to the success of Black Panther. She too references the film as a sign of inclusion’s potential—but she sees its financial success as a byproduct of, not the main incentive for, inclusion. More than money, the benefit is that “little boys and girls are seeing themselves as strong women or heroes,” she says. “They’re not the help, they’re not thugs. They’re respected and valued for what they have to contribute to the world.”

Monteiro says that a lot needs to happen before designers can properly address ethical standards. He suggests taking cues from other industries, like medicine and law, where practitioners are regulated rather than assumed to behave ethically. Echoing the recent push for ethics classes in engineering higher education, Monteiro suggests that design education should include ethical training and that passing an ethics test should be a requirement for earning a design degree. Moreover, professional designers need to be licensed and reviewed—just like doctors and lawyers. Sure, there are bad actors in those fields, but at least there are mechanisms to deter or discipline them.

What would this kind of training and monitoring entail? Ethical design means considering the context of the product you create. Designers need to learn how to think about moral questions for themselves: What are the long-term problems facing the industry you’re designing for? How does your design problem relate to or intersect with or contribute to them? At what environmental, cultural, and social cost does your design solution come? Who is your design solution serving, and who is it not serving? Are your team and testing representative of the populations impacted? How does your solution play into your users’ values, preferences, and behaviors?

Take Airbnb as an example. Designers created the home-sharing platform with the intention of cultivating trust between hosts and guests, working from the research insight that this would eliminate users’ main apprehension. Their solution: Guests apply for a stay by mandatory sharing of a photo and personal information, creating a profile that the host then accepts or denies at his or her discretion. While this design solution aptly addresses the short-term question of how to convince users to book housing with Airbnb, it fails to consider the larger context in which the product exists—namely, an industry historically rife with discriminatory practices. Airbnb’s designers have inadvertently created an environment conducive to racism and discrimination by basing housing approval on information about a guest’s identity. Guests reported that their reservations were being denied or canceled based on their race or gender identity.

After a Harvard study showed guests with stereotypically black names received fewer bookings on the platform than those with white-sounding names, the company planned to improve the situation. In addition to policy changes, Airbnb tasked its designers with delivering a more ethical design solution. This included creating a booking process that relies less on guest photos, designing a feature that prohibits hosts from accepting reservations for any time period that has already been denied to someone else, adding tools to flag discrimination or hate speech, and promoting the site’s instant booking option that does not require host approval. These design changes offered major improvement to Airbnb’s product from an ethical standpoint.

As a product designer, I know that no mandate exists to integrate these ethical checks and balances in our process. While I may hear a lot of these issues raised at speaking events and industry meetups, more “practical” considerations can overshadow these conversations in my day-to-day decision making. When they have to compete with the workaday pressures of budgets, roadmaps, and clients, these questions won’t emerge as priorities organically.

Most important, then, is action. Castillo worries that the conversation about “ethics in design” could become a cliché, like “empathy” or “diversity” in tech, where it’s more talk than walk. She says it’s not surprising that ethics in tech hasn’t been addressed in depth in the past, given the industry’s lack of diversity. Because most tech employees come from socially privileged backgrounds, they may not be as attuned to ethical concerns. A designer who identifies with society’s dominant culture may have less personal need to take another perspective. Indeed, identification with a society’s majority is shown to be correlated with less critical awareness of the world outside of yourself. Castillo says that, as a black woman in America, she’s a bit wary of this conversation’s effectiveness if it remains only a conversation.

“You know how someone says, ‘Why’d you become a nurse or doctor?’ And they say, ‘I want to help people’?” asks Castillo. “Wouldn’t it be cool if someone says, ‘Why’d you become an engineer or a product designer?’ And you say, ‘I want to help people.’ ”

Inclusion is a significant way for designers to do so. Other ethical design practices include considering the intersecting issues of accessibility, privacy, and time and attention. This is the vision we need to embrace for today’s designers—but it will only happen by design.