Sustaining Ethical Design


So how can we ensure that ethical design is not only preached, but actually practiced? There’s still a long way to go, but we’re optimistic that change will occur.


Redefine how we measure success.

In the Calvin and Hobbes comic above, Calvin notes, “In the real world, people care about success, not principles.” It’s easy to forget that ROIs and KPIs are not the only things that matter nowadays. Ironically, some of the very products that have been criticized for their ethical mishaps have been the conduits for a counterpart to monetary currency: social currency. Companies can no longer afford to ignore the ethical ramifications of their products. Remember the #DeleteUber scandal, when the ride-sharing company got put on blast and lost 200,000 users for undermining the protest against Trump’s Muslim Ban? How about the mess that Facebook has gotten itself into? Looking back, when would have been a good time for Zuckerberg to heed the warnings that perhaps, just perhaps, the social network had gone a bit too far?

Inclusive and diverse teams are imperative.

This is no longer a cherry on top, this is the goddamn sundae. Time and time again, studies have shown how having inclusive and diverse teams improve collective decision making. Having a variety of different thinkers who are all empowered to speak in the brainstorm session makes a world of a difference. Recently, it was shown that facial recognition systems were biased in that they identified white men significantly better than they identified women of color. What did the teams that created those systems look like? This could have huge implications as facial recognition is being used more and more in law enforcement; in a country that already brutalizes certain people of color, this could be disastrous. Furthermore, when conducting the empathize phase of your design process, it is critical to make sure that the teams conducting and contributing to the research are representative of the user demographics as well. Participatory design is a great way to bring the users into the researching realm, so as to offer authentic insight.

Product teams need to have a designated ethicist (or two).

I’m hoping that in the future, prioritizing and applying ethics will be second nature to anybody in any position. However, in the present, that simply is not the case. Our education system has not prepared us for this. Consider that just recently, a computer scientist at Harvard was asked about the ethical consequences of artificial intelligence and responded by shrugging and saying, “I’m just an engineer.” Given the rapid pace at which advanced technologies are developing and the vast consequences that they can have, “I am just an [insert position]” is no longer an acceptable excuse. If you are contributing to creating a product in any manner, you are responsible for its effects on others. At the end of the day, nobody is neutral and doing nothing is not neutral. Companies need to invest and make sure that they have ethicists on each product team and in the boardroom. These ethicists would ideally be divorced from any “bottom line” motivation or profit incentive. That gives them the freedom to zoom out, forecast, and monitor while imparting that type of mindset on their coworkers.

Ethical practices need to be emphasized and prioritized in the boardroom and C-suite.

This should be so obvious, but as we have seen, that is not always the case. Corporate social responsibility is not just a catchphrase; it needs to be implemented across all channels of a company. It’s not enough to talk the talk these days. Company executives need to maintain transparency around their products and show that they prioritize stakeholders (and non-stakeholders) just as much as they prioritize shareholders.

Pay it forward by applying this ethical design framework.

Several designers have the privilege of choosing to work for companies that prioritize users on an ethical level, which is a great and empowering mindset. However, if you are a junior designer and currently do not find yourself in a position where you can easily choose a more ethical employer, consider advocating to apply the methodologies outlined in this framework on your current team. It is never too early to strengthen and assert your voice as a designer. As designers, we have a head start when it comes to taking an ethical approach in our process. The vocabulary is already there for us. After all, this framework is simply a detailed exploration of using design thinking to create human-centric solutions.


Return to main framework page