Ethics in web design

Written by Alex Hughes - May 1, 2020

Ethics in web design aren’t immediately obvious or at the forefront of the industry, but I believe now more than ever, ethics are paramount to digital experience design. How do we define and measure goodness and rightness in the increasingly used digital realm?

Every decision in the design process is a decision made on behalf of another person, those we often refer to as “customers” or “end-users”. As the designers behind experiences used by a mass audience, it’s our responsibility to think mindfully about how our decisions impact the person on the other end of the conversation. Even small and seemingly insignificant decisions can have enormous implications, and ethics can help ensure the longevity of our designs and help us carve paths to better futures for all involved.

There isn’t a single ethical code of conduct agreed on by all designers globally because ethics are not absolute, they can change over time and may differ depending on the personal moral beliefs of the designer and their cultural upbringing. However, as a general rule of thumb, ethics are essentially about respect and empathy.

Here are a few take homes from my approach to ethics in the website design process:

Never manipulate behaviour

Dark patterns on the web work well. Too well. And there’s not much you can do about it.

Let me use a common example for this. Assuming you have created an Amazon prime account, have you ever tried to delete it? If so, you’d quickly realise that it’s a borderline impossible task. Amazon makes it extremely easy for you to create an account, but forces you to search its labyrinth — the deepest, darkest corners of the website — to close it.

This of course is no accident on their part. It’s actually a persuasive web design tactic often referred to as the “roach motel” — “A wide-ranging group of ‘dark ux patterns’ that describe user experience techniques in which users can easily get into a certain situation but then, intentionally, have a hard time getting out of the given situation once they realise it is undesirable.” (Source: Roach Motel — UX One Word At a Time)

Sadly Amazon isn’t alone in using clever design to manipulate users’ behaviour. I strongly believe that design should be a guide for the user, and not a strict path. The user’s needs should be the overriding factor in a user-experience design, and therefore a journey-map should never be purely for financial gain or social following.

Design for the users, not yourself

This one doesn’t come as naturally to me, and I’m sure other designers will sympathise. I have to fight the urge to design sites that work for me, that are designed to please my eye and my tastes and habits. The fundamental unit of UX design is an interaction, and more likely than not an interaction with a user who has a specific goal in mind. It’s therefore paramount that designs are done to a highly researched user base. Secondly, it’s important to adhere to expected design patterns, one such pattern is the UX law, Jakob’s Law —

“Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.” 

Jakob’s Law of UX

You can find out more at Laws of UX, which is a collection of the maxims and principles that designers can consider when building user interfaces.

Ensure positive consequences

What are the consequences of our design decisions? Do they improve the common good of those using it? If not, we should consider our design approach and the role our website plays within society. 

“Ethics for designers means trying your best to make sure the work you do respects the user.” – Alex Li

Ethics in design is more of an evaluation tool that helps define an alignment with human respect. I understand it’s a very hard balancing act, especially for the e-commerce space where conversion-rates and profit are a priority; but speaking purely, design ethics are an obligation for designers to prioritise the value of the rights of the end-user while respecting the product at the same time. For more information on this, our neighbours doteveryone are experts in Consequence Scanning.

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