UX Ethics. Yeah, Yeah — so how do we get there?

By essay, feature

Ethics has emerged as a common discussion topic and concern for user experience practitioners. It makes sense. As technology has gotten more advanced over the past decade with massive platform infrastructures in place and growing implementations of AI/ML, technologies have grown very powerful. The pressure to grow profits is relentless. Competition between products is fierce. And client partners who want to use these technologies have more money and power with motives to increase both. You know those movies where the protagonist is a quirky genius inventor and the bad guy is an evil CEO or military general ready to exploit their findings once they see it work? Here we are.

Along with developers, user experience designers (generalized term) are often the ones fielding the increasingly unseemly requests coming out of what you might call “creep creep”. Companies want more money, more data and more attention from their users and see UXDs as the ones to facilitate this as frictionlessly as possible. But UXDs are often drawn to the field because of a natural empathy for users and a desire to help them, not swindle them. When the role emerged in the 90s, early work was humanizing products built by programmers whose focus was on complex functionality. Rethinking products from a user’s perspective made these tools more accessible and helped drive the explosion in technology adoption through the 2000s. Once user experience became a standard industry consideration, attention shifted to optimizing the business. This was always a consideration, but now profit maximization and growth became specialties. In a return to Mad Men era sensibilities, designers became primarily valued by business to humanize sales growth and value extraction.

This is not what many UXDs thought they signed up for. So how can we push back?

1. Just Say No

One response to an unethical request on the job is to just say “no.” As an individual, you can take a stand and not deliver anything that goes against personal values or a reasonable professional standard. Both coworkers and product end-users may be on your side to some degree, but you’d be acting alone and there’s no guarantee any of those people will know about, appreciate or support you in your stand. You may be going against the requests of your boss or even your bosses boss, owners, co-founders or wealthy and powerful investors. Most people are generally aware there are people who do bad things for more money, but it’s worth noting the actual mechanics of it. It often filters through many layers of people, technology, locations and ideological rationalizations until it becomes abstract, distant and difficult to track or attribute. Maybe the request is just to increase Q2 numbers and it’s up to the department or product manager to come up with the specifics. This is an old story. It’s how evil becomes “civilized” and simply registers as confusing or mere misunderstanding. But based on where we are in ethics discussions, it seems many are unaware of this dynamic and have an overly optimistic view of their industry. The higher-ups are probably not aware this is problematic. Maybe they just didn’t think through the implications. If I just explain this, they’ll probably back off. After all, they aren’t as close to the research and the implementation as I am!

Let’s zoom in on this moment. Many people have been there and kept it to themselves because the conditions were so specific and they didn’t know where to go with it. Co-founders may have been there with clients or investors. For the health of the profession (and society and the planet) we should start talking more about these “micro-interactions” where we opt-out of ethics and why.

Say you alert the requester that this is an unethical request and you won’t do it. There might be a slight chance they weren’t aware this is a shady idea and drop it at your suggestion. Or maybe they’re just spitballing and it carries little risk to just not go down that path. Hey, that wasn’t so bad!

Alternatively, the requestor knows on some level that it’s problematic and what happens next plays into management’s judgement of you as an employee. Will you be a “team-player” — essentially amoral, self-interested and able to take any request and run with it? That makes things easy. But what if you’re defiant? Well, depends on your political position in the company. They might see it as a red flag which can accumulate until they eventually let you go. Or maybe you provide some unique, indispensable role. Now they realize they’re going to start keeping you out of some conversations, hide things from you, or finesse their communication to get you onboard. Or they may drop it entirely only to start going around you. How you react has a lot to do with how badly you need this job, how new you are in the industry, your temperament and upbringing. This dilemma is put on employees by those with more power in the workplace in a society without safety nets.

Saying “no” may also not change much about this situation. You might even quit for your own peace of mind. For some that may be a relief, for others it’s a stressful situation without income & healthcare. Meanwhile, the company is only temporarily inconvenienced. They will hire a replacement or your coworkers will have to pick up the slack. Tech is rivaling entertainment with the number of eager applicants hoping for a shot. There’s a barrier to entry in expertise but given the obsession with STEM programs, boot camps, speed-mentoring sessions and career coaches, there’s a lot of effort going towards changing that. With no coordinated collective activity paired with an obsession with individualism and personal branding, it’s everyone for themselves.

2. Professional Statements of Ethics

So perhaps we need some outside help. Some feel that professional organizations should establish clear guidelines that become industry standards. Then individuals can follow and cite these standards to back up their position. Ultimately, the issue is they have no teeth. Professional organizations mostly talk to professionals in that industry. These groups are not on the radar of the higher-ups in your companies who are into their own professional networks. Pointing to a webpage from an org they never heard of is likely not going to help much. Also, design orgs have tried selling the value of their profession for decades by saying how strategic they are to business — we deserve a “seat at the table”. So pushing back on profit maximization in the name of ethics, while a hotter topic now, is not exactly in their DNA. Some ethics statements might indeed be helpful for projects in public or non-profit sectors where the pressure for profit is less intense and the designer has the power to set the parameters, but that’s not the scenario we’re looking at where there is acute pressure from above to act unethically.

3. Professional Licensing/Credentials

Another idea is to establish licensing or certification for UXDs. With this system, UXDs would have to be certified by some regulatory body and companies wouldn’t be able to hire anyone without this credential.

Professional licensure usually happens in two scenarios:

a. Consumer Protection. Professionals, often hired by individuals directly, are credentialed for jobs that can result in death or severe consequence in the interest of public safety. This includes doctors, architects, lawyers, pilots, electricians, etc. The service is often too complex for the customer to evaluate on their own. Customers are highly incentivized to hire someone who’s licensed so they or their customers don’t die. This scenario is pretty straightforward, but it’s still important to strike the right balance of requirements so as not to lead to…

b. Gatekeeping. Established professionals or credentialing programs lobby to protect their own interests and keep down competition. Often those with money, resources, connections, seniority or who went to the “right” schools set and get credentials while traditionally marginalized newcomers working on smaller projects are kept out. This NYT article dives into the issue via a women who can’t braid hair without a cosmetology license.

Though this has come up in regard to ethics, I don’t know roles which are credentialed based on ability to make moral judgements. Sure it’s unethical to cut someone open without knowing how to put them back together, but doctors still face ethical dilemmas such as letting patients without insurance suffer or accepting incentives from drug companies to write more prescriptions. Architects & engineers just need to make sure the structure is sound and ADA compliant, they still can be asked to build concentration camps.

So what exactly would UXDs be getting credentialed for? What is their potential threat to public health? We live in a society rampant with manipulative advertising, phone spam, for-profit colleges, payday loans, oxycontin epidemics, military-grade weaponry on demand and contaminated water supplies. Sometimes designers fancy we’re above all that, but the fact is, a lot of people come to us to make this stuff more streamlined and sophisticated. I reckon the public perception is that this stuff is squarely in our wheelhouse (we’re often just seen as marketing or tech people). If there is government intervention, it would likely be regulation in a specific area (see #4), not elevating certain individuals to own critical decisions. UXDs may not even be the best owners of ethics. A cognitive researcher or someone in science & technology studies might make more sense. Most designers I know are looking up best practice tips or researching the latest tools, not browsing sociology journals or the latest public policy.

Are people currently working on policy in the design community? Do UXDs have the leverage to make credentialing a reality? Owners and investors have much more access to policymakers and don’t likely want regulations around hiring. UXD roles are probably largely unknown to government since they haven’t traditionally hired for it. What person or government agency would get this idea off the ground? Is this a city, state or federal thing? We’re not at the top, and we’re also not in the most need. Realistically, who in the regulatory landscape thinks about UXDs?

In a more unsavory vein, the license requirement seems to be a way for some UXDs to size up others in the industry. Thinking a peer isn’t worthy of employment because you don’t like their approach, their school wasn’t good enough or they don’t live up to your moral standards just sounds like gatekeeping. Codifying that sentiment with licensure is not a public good.

4. Government Regulation

Another way to enforce ethics is with government regulation. Looking at precedents and rumblings, this could involve child protection, data privacy, monopolistic business practices, AI, facial recognition or abusive/extremist content. This could change the playing field and keep ethical companies competitive.

In this realm, EFF is a helpful reference and Policy Club is an interesting approach to understanding and influencing tech policy. However, large companies with lobbyists are in a strong position to affect policy AND more able to work around any regulations coming their way. Smaller (and possibly more ethical companies) without dedicated compliance teams can suffer. So Twitter or Facebook could continue doing whatever they want while full stack folks new to the profession would struggle just trying to get that WordPress site up for a nonprofit in need.

These last two approaches reveal a common mindset that there are 2 sources of power in our society — big corporations and big government. If you’re having trouble with one, turn to the other to step in and help. Either way, we hope some leadership “up there” will somehow see our dilemma and intervene for us. We should get more involved in those conversations, but it’s often a long, dedicated process. In the meantime, we still have each other! To expand the ideas of what’s possible, we should also consider bottom-up approaches…

5. Consumer Protests or Boycotts

If the work UXDs are asked to do will hurt users, perhaps they could help in pushing back. Here is a natural alignment of interests with a group that is potentially large and influential. But how does that connection happen? Would a UXD get actively involved in organizing people against their own company? How would they initiate the conversation if customers were few but influential (as in B2B)? While a consumer campaign might happen independently, and an employee can leverage it in making their case, it’s largely out of their control. There also aren’t a lot of success stories in this realm. People love/hate their apps and devices but often don’t know where to go for alternatives.

6. Industry Organizing

If large groups of UX practitioners started working together, you’d also have big numbers, common interests plus more opportunities for connection, collaboration and support. This may start to look like a trade union. Right now when UXDs talk about ethics, it’s in the form of a skill share. But ethics is not a practice problem to discuss with peers, it’s a political problem that involves negotiating with those in power. You address it with numbers and research and strategy. There needs to be room for critique and rigor or this can end up similar to the “statement of ethics” approach with no teeth. Say you take on an issue specific enough to be actionable, like refusing to implement forced continuity or refusing work for certain clients. Will enough UXDs agree to that? How does membership work? How do they exert influence? If a UXD gets fired for speaking up, what support would the org provide? Details would need to be figured out, but there are models worth learning from in the entertainment and construction industries. More recently established organizations in creative/tech work are Game Workers Unite and The Architecture Lobby.

7. Coworker Organizing

This involves coordinating with coworkers at your company to collectively push back against unethical requests by bosses or management. There is no outside entity. It’s something you can work on right now without lobbyists, policy experience, fancy connections or professional organizers and it can target exactly the concern you’re having. It can also significantly change the power dynamic of your workplace

UXDs would have to see themselves not as uniquely exceptional and deserving of some special power bestowed from above, but a member of a larger team that collectively makes the business run. If you all stop working, everything grinds to a halt. There’s power in that. Can they just fire all of you? It’d be illegal, but they could. However, the likely success of “just saying no” increases immensely with more team members by your side. That’s especially true if the most high-performing, specialized, senior, openly valued and influential workers are with you. If you are a designer with privilege, you can use it to support the most vulnerable at your workplace instead of using it to jump ship to something better. Replacing one person can be tough, but replacing an entire specialized workforce with no one to onboard them is catastrophic. Your bosses may not even have a good sense of what you do, how you do it, or how to replace you. Retaliatory firings may even make headlines. And if your team is unified, you can make a case for whatever is negatively impacting any of you at work. That’s not only ethical concerns but wages, hours, benefits, pay inequity, diversity, harassment, policy governance, project self-direction — you name it. And the effects reverberate out. It can raise standards at other companies as they compete for talent. It can even start reversing the decades-long downward pressure on wages. If influential tech workers at high profile companies want to create impact and affect social justice on a massive scale, all they have to do is stand right where they are.

But isn’t this inherently adversarial? The employer-employee relationship already has inherent conflicts of interest and a deep power imbalance — a fact we’re constantly, deliberately distracted from. Recognizing that and standing up for your interests is a normal, healthy response. Management with emotional intelligence and self-awareness, invested in craft and ethics may even appreciate a union in their own fights against pressure from demanding owners, investors or clients.

Why is this so uncommon? Why doesn’t anyone talk about this or know how this works? For one, because it can indeed work. Unethical things often happen in the pursuit of money and are implemented through power. People with money and power don’t want to give any of it up. So working with others towards common interests, while common among leadership, is made out to seem obscure, extreme or conspiratorial for the rest of us. Second, I think many of us designers get into “thought leader” mode as a method of self-promotion. We love strategy and problem-solving and sharing accomplishments and insights, but we’ve historically used those to the advantage of industry and to increase our marketability. Saying “no” is a rejection of our company’s actual values and the economic system driving them (they gotta be competitive after all). Saying “no” doesn’t make us more appealing to bosses, and that goes against the path we’ve internalized for our professional success. However, that’s often what ethical choices require.

This approach is not easy. It requires work and initiative and risk, the likes of which most of us are unfamiliar with. Most bosses will not welcome it (to say the least). But it might give you the opportunity to see how they really feel about “employee empowerment”, “open door policy”, or “servant leadership”. I recommend looking into organizing strategy and keeping quiet until you build enough strength. UXDs are logical people. Any fight for ethics will be hard work, so might as well put it towards something with a chance of succeeding.


standard design process diagram: Define, Research, Brainstorm, Develop, Feedback, Improve

I’m encouraged so many people are thinking about ethics in tech. I think we need a combination of all these approaches working on multiple fronts (except the credentials thing — that’s not a good idea). But it has to go beyond talk. We need to be as rigorous and experimental and detail-driven in our pursuit of ethics as we are in our paid work creating these problems. We’re barely past the “define” stage of an implementation process for ethics. We need to do more than dissect dark patterns or egregious social media policy. You don’t need a diagram to show how and why no one likes a punch in the face, you just need to figure out how to block it.

originally posted on medium.com


credits: Diagram from Chicago Architecture Center. All icons from thenounproject.com. ban by Viktor Ostrovsky, contract by Weltenraser, Certificate by Musmellow, capitol building by icon 54, Buy Nothing Day by Wilder & Co, construction workers by Gan Khoon Lay, Human Rescource by Wilson Joseph.

Last modified: August 3, 2020

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