14 July 2015

The ethics of digital design

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Designers, writes Cennydd Bowles in a Design Council opinion piece, have a central role in safeguarding digital products so they not only empower but also protect users.

This responsibility starts with designers’ own output. Design teams should demand high ethical standards from themselves and their colleagues. Internal product development conversations are where key ethical questions are answered, whether intentionally or not. Designers should be active in these conversations, advocating for user needs, identifying areas for deeper research and highlighting ethical concerns even at the risk of short-term unpopularity.

Designers should also strive to give digital products a healthy balance of seamlessness and interrogability. While it’s appealing to create technology that needs little human intervention, this sort of black box can be a breeding ground for dishonest behaviour. High-risk systems should be interrogable, so that a sufficiently motivated user can learn about what a system is doing, what data it’s gathering and where that data goes. The success of connected technologies is largely predicated on trust – allowing users to lift the bonnet will hopefully make this trust easier to earn.

Digital designers are, furthermore, well placed to push for increased team diversity. As ambassadors for global userbases, designers know well the range of mentalities and approaches people bring to technology. Homogenous teams are too easily swept up in camaraderie, seeing only exciting gains for people like them, yet blind to potential harm for people not like them. The broad perspective of diverse teams offers better insight on tough choices: early warning of ethical issues that may disadvantage particular groups.

Underpinning everything is a need to communicate. Digital designers should help users understand what’s happening inside the products they rely on. Only then can customers make truly informed choices. Designers should also educate lawmakers on the consequences of bad ethical practice and advocate for regulation where appropriate. To this end, our industry has a duty to highlight damaging practice wherever it is found, and to continue to educate the public about misleading or harmful aspects of digital products. Our global audience deserves technology that works in its very best interests.

Cennydd Bowles is a digital product designer, recently design manager at Twitter. He is the author of the book Undercover User Experience Design.

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