Human-centered design or Humane design – role of ethical standards in UX

I accept full responsibility picture with man

UX designers design products for users – this is a statement which can be heard while discussing this profession. In fact, the name of the profession says so. However, very often the reality is different and UX designers need not only to satisfy the interests of users, but also the companies, which pay their wages. This very often puts UX designers in an uncomfortable situation which is questioning their values. Within last years, this issue has been widely noticed and the debate about in ethics has been launched.

Main areas of ethical concerns

Research involving users

Any design project should start with the user research. UX researchers work directly with users using their data. In academic research this process is highly regulated, and researchers have to adhere to the academic integrity and ethical guidelines. In case of UX researchers, there are no official guidelines which are obligatory for all UX researchers.

User Engagement and knowledge of psychology

All sites/apps are interested mainly in the user engagement. UX designers use their knowledge of human psychology: fear of missing out, discussions with similar minded people, pleasure from direct benefits in the form of e.g. Facebook likes. UX designers can use this knowledge in various forms, both to benefit users (for example suggesting new words to learn in Duolingo) or to take advantage of users e.g. newsfeed in Facebook feeding users with personalized information confirming their beliefs, suggesting new videos in Netflix just after the one you watched has finished or system of continuous notifications in all social media platforms.

User benefits vs Company benefits

Companies have very often different goals than the good of users. They sell service and very often are not interested in allowing users to easily leave it. Moreover, they are interested in encouraging users to buy more goods and services they offer. This might result in creation of so called “dark patterns”: tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to” (Dark Patterns).

However, this dichotomy is not always evident. Very often UX designer needs to make a decision about the process – whether make it easy or make it on purpose slightly more difficult to prevent making decisions user might regret in the future, even though this might affect the direct benefit for the company.

What can be done?  

In last years, there have been many initiatives which aimed to support UX designers and researchers at their work. Some of them were created by the professional associations such as UXPA Code of Professional Conduct. This Code has been approved in 2005 and later on updated. Each UXPA member automatically is required to follow it. It consists of 2 parts. The first part lists ethical principles and the second one provides examples:

  • “Act in the best interest of everyone
  • Be honest with everyone
  • Do no harm and if possible provide benefits
  • Act with integrity
  • Avoid conflicts of interest
  • Respect privacy, confidentiality, and anonymity
  • Provide all resultant data” (UXPA Professional Code of Conduct)

Some designers use the ethic codes of other associations related either to the IT, design or psychology fields, e.g. Association for Computing Machinery’s Committee on Professional Ethics Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Additionally, while browsing on Internet, I have found various self-imposed oaths. For example Samantha Dempsey and Clara Taylor from Mad*Pow design agency have created an alternative The Designer’s 10-point Hippocratic Oath, which is similar to the UXPA Code of Conduct, but looks also in the copyright issues.

These examples show the need from UX professionals side for a comprehensive guidelines supporting them in the decisions they make at work. The importance of their job was emphasized by the proposal of Mike Monteiro, who suggested that tech design should be licensed. According to him, requesting designers to obtain a license just like architects and doctors do, would solve this problem.

It is interesting to observe this ethical debate about how to create “regulate UX”, so it will be more “humane” and “not only” human-centred.

Design Critique: Netflix app (Android version)


Netflix app – Main screen


Netflix is a streaming service which offers its users access to TV shows, movies and documentaries. Users have to subscribe to the paid membership plan, which enables them to watch offered content without commercials on different number of devices. Netflix delivers its services in many countries and adjusts its offer per country.

Main screen

The main screen of Netflix app is divided into categories (new, popular among users and by genre). Currently, my subscription to Netflix expired, however previously Netflix was preparing a special offer for me. Categorization used by Netflix works very well – it helps user to plan and specify their next steps. Discoverability and mapping follow conventions. User can make a conceptual model of how Netflix works – it reminds a bit video shop, where movies were categorized by their genre. The personalized list, which now disappeared for me, reminds the suggestions of a shop assistant.

Recommendation: I would suggest to provide users with expired subscription the possibility to see the personalized list of movies to watch – it might remind them what movies they haven’t finished and encourage them to renew the subscription. Moreover, currently I do not see any warning that my subscription expired. This lack of forcing function, as described below, will allow me to err. Therefore, I would propose to add the note in red on the top of the screen encouraging me to Renew the subscription.

Search – new page


Netflix app – Search

While clicking on Search button, I’m moved to search screen and virtual keyboard pops up. The instruction on the screen provides useful signifier that I can look in search box for my movies. However, the empty black field in the middle in my conceptual model of how app works and based on cultural convention, should take away the virtual keyboard and enable me to choose another option of the screen. It doesn’t. Eventually, I cannot remove the keyboard and it is not possible to rectify the situation and return to the place where I have been.

Recommendation: to allow user to click on the black part of the screen to hide the virtual keyboard.

Search – typing in the query


Netflix app – suggestions

While starting to type on the Search bar, I started to receive the suggestions of possible titles I’m looking for. I have tried to use different versions of title in Polish, English and with typos and it worked. I do not need to be precise to receive what I was looking for. Designers obviously used Norman’s knowledge in the world concept. The search results show me the picture from the movie and the title. This is great natural mapping! I just need to click on it to start watching the movie.

Watching/Downloading an episode of TV series


After clicking on chosen title of TV series, I got to the last episode I have seen. It used constrains hiding from me episodes already watched and provides feedback where in the TV series I am. Netflix also provides feedforward about new episodes. Great design!

Netlifx App – watching/downloading


Every user can either choose to watch an episode (pink frame) and download an episode (green frame). This follows mapping (clicking on video frame) and conventions (download sign).

Watching an episode

After clicking on video frame, it is possible for me to launch an episode without active subscription. Only after trying to skip the summary, I receive a prompt in Polish explaining me that my account is not active. When I click on more info link, I’m moved to the general English language Help site, which does not provide me relevant information.

Downloading an episode

Netflix app – Error message while downloading


When I try to download the episode, I see orange exclamation mark next to the episode and on the downloaded files. The discoverability is good as it is easily to see that something went wrong, however, I do not know what exactly went wrong. Feedback is missing. While clicking on Downloaded Files, I receive error message who does not explain the error. I’m just prompted to either try again or cancel it.

Recommendation: I suggest to add forcing functions such as interlock, in this case in the form of constrains preventing me from trying to watch/download the episode and add feedback suggesting me to extend my subscription (with a link to do it now) instead of sending me to the general Help site.


To sum up, Netflix is a great app offering easy access to its great offer. It is extremely user friendly, while suggesting its content. There is still some room for improvement regarding tackling situation of users without active accounts and the multi-lingual options. However, in general this app enables users to find and watch their favorite TV series and movies.