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I saw the latest in a number of books written about the impact of bad design and how it can have tragic consequences in what seems to be a catchy title of "Tragic Design"

The book is intended to:

explain how poorly designed products can anger, sadden, exclude, and even kill people who use them. The designers responsible certainly didn’t intend harm, so what can you do to avoid making similar mistakes?

As far as I know, design ethics is not something that is typically taught in the UX setting, but there are certainly organisations such as ind.ie that promotes ethical design and other people like Mike Monteiro that suggest ethics shouldn't be a side hustle.

A recent article on Fast Co. Design provokatively titled "A Secret History Of Selling Out also points out bluntly that:

Now, more than ever, designers have a responsibility to assert themselves, reassess their professional ethics, and flex the vaunted position their predecessors have afforded them to become a more positive force in the world.

Also, another recent survey by EY reveals that not only do senior managers need to be held accountable for fraudulent or unethical behaviour, it is also important for employees to be able to take action when they see something that raises concern. In other words, more action need to be taken at both ends of the corporate and organisation hierarchy.

Talks aside, are there actually any resources that promote or teach ethical design practices?

UPDATE: Latest case added to recent news suggests that perhaps we have more to worry about from the tech giants, with Google fined for manipulating search results.

  • The "Ford Pinto" case studies may be of interest if you google them ( Ford produced a car with a design flaw ) – PhillipW May 27 '17 at 6:48
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It is something that I have thought a little bit about, and I did come up with a list of actionable points in the form of a simple checklist/questionnaire that I called the Certified Ethical Designer test inspired by the likes of Milton Glaser and Dieter Ram that I hope can serve as a means for further discussion and action on this topic:

Section A: Ownership of Ethical Responsibilities

  • It is my responsibility (and burden), no one else can carry it for me (10pts)
  • It is someone else’s problem (i.e. my supervisor/manager/HR/other) and nothing to do with me (5pts)
  • Who knows and who cares (1pt for at least thinking about it)

Section B: Conviction of Your Ethical Responsibilities

  • I defend the right to work to my ethical standards to the extent of refusing to carry out certain tasks (10pts)

  • I defend the right to work to my ethical standards but not to the extent of sticking my neck out because they will just get someone else to do the work (5pt)

  • I have no reason to defend it because I already have enough on my plate (1pt)

Section C: Acting on Your Ethical Responsibilities

  • I will address issues whenever it is applicable to the project or task (10 pt)

  • I will address issues only when I am being asked to (5pt)

  • I think addressing it once is already one time too many (1pt)

Section D: Extra Credit

  • I scrutinize the integrity and veracity of data used if they come from an unknown source (5pt)

  • I check the upstream and downstream source of labour to ensure that it is fair and equitable (5pt)

  • I review and realign my ethical and moral compass frequently (5pt)

  • I talk to other people (both above and below my pay grade) about ethical issues in design (5pt)

Final assessment

  • CED Level A (40–50pts): you are a shining light in a dark corner of design

  • CED Level B (30–39pts): you are on your way to a more ethically satisfying design career

  • CED Level C (20–29pts): you are on the right track, but there’s room for improvement

  • CED Level D (10–19pts): you can do so much more, unless of course you don’t really want to

  • CED Level E (3–9pts): at least you’ve thought about it, but action speaks much louder than thoughts

  • Great list Michael! – jonshariat May 14 '17 at 20:23
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Michael's answer is good (as they so frequently are), but I thought I'd add in something because ultimately, design is not the process of building something effectively for users. It's more than that, and ultimately at its core ethics are maintained inherently...if you go deeply enough.

That is to say I don't know of any documentation or sources that describe design ethics, but this is a logical take on why design (and UX design especially) principles, when followed, are already ethical.

In designing any product, the ultimate goal is to provide the best needs for both the user and the business (balancing the two). One of the fundamental principles of UX. If we think deeply about that, the end goal is to provide the user the maximum benefit, and the only way to ensure that is for the business to also receive the maximum benefit. Otherwise, the business can't afford to continue to provide the maximum benefit to the end user. This is a moving target, of course, so it's never exactly balanced, but the principle is there.

Considering that, if an aspect of the product is fundamentally designed to make users do something negative, even if they don't notice immediately, the repercussions will be felt over time and/or at scale. This will negatively impact the business because users will leave or use that particular piece less, or something else with an overall negative impact, either on themselves or others.

No matter the case, negative design influences will permeate and cause long-term issues. It's just more often than not decisions we make in the design process may prove to be wrong long-term, but we either can't see that far ahead or take the risk of making that decision with the intention to use the short-term success to rebalance later on.

  • +1 Thank you for the kind comments, and your very thoughtful answer. Dieter Ram included as one of his good design principles that it should be honest, but somehow we have forgotten or neglected the need to think more deeply about design. I do hope that there are many more like you out there :) – Michael Lai May 13 '17 at 11:51

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