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.