Often in our line of work we are asked to do things that do not serve the user's benefit and are not in line with UX design best practices, but is there a specific line that we should not cross as UX professionals, or something that we can show our employers regarding the standards and professional guidelines that we should abide by?

Also, in addressing this question, I think it would be invaluable to tease out the aspects of any references that are specific to the area of UX design, even if it is combining several areas that are relevant to the discipline (e.g. pyschology, engineering, marketing).

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    I would argue that, at least for software, the ACM Code of Ethics applies: acm.org/about/code-of-ethics (and the SE Code of Ethics: acm.org/about/se-code). – Joshua Barron Apr 28 '14 at 14:48
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    Anybody running usability tests with participants other than coworkers should be familiar with guidelines like those in Section 8. Sadly, your coworkers sign away many of the rights mentioned in Section 8 when they become employees of a company. – user1757436 Apr 28 '14 at 21:23
  • @user1757436 How would such a conflict of interest best be dealt with? I think this is an important issue, and perhaps there are already similar examples out there? – Michael Lai Mar 22 '15 at 21:48
up vote 13 down vote accepted

There is some interesting academic work surrounding ethics and user experience, even though I have not come across a formal/industry "code of ethics" for UX practitioners specifically. There are books that touch on the "dark patterns" of experience design, and you will see some related questions here on UX.SE to that effect. One of the more recent academic papers by researchers from Microsoft Research is titled: "Benevolent Deception in Human Computer Interaction" (CHI 2013), and touches on the ethics of deception (malevolent and benevolent deception), as highlighted by their abstract:

Though it has been asserted that "good design is honest", deception exists throughout human-computer interaction research and practice. Because of the stigma associated with deception - in many cases rightfully so - the research community has focused its energy on eradicating malicious deception, and ignored instances in which deception is positively employed. In this paper we present the notion of benevolent deception, deception aimed at benefitting the user as well as the developer. We frame our discussion using a criminology-inspired model and ground components in various examples. We assert that this provides us with a set of tools and principles that not only helps us with system and interface design, but that opens new research areas. After all, as Cockton claims in his 2004 paper "Value-Centered HCI", "Traditional disciplines have delivered truth. The goal of HCI is to deliver value."

However, there may be two complimentary codes of ethics that could serve as a basis for discussion with an employer/client. The first is the Design Institute of Australia (DIA) code of ethics and professional conduct. It seems to cover things nicely from a designer-perspective, and is based on a number of international codes of conduct (as highlighted below)

An important object of the DIA is to have its members recognised in the design professions and among the general public as having professional status of the highest standard.

To achieve this the DIA expects its members to conduct themselves honourably and honestly in their dealings with their clients, the community and their colleagues.

This Guide is based on the Model Code of Professional Conduct for Designers which has been accepted by members of the following bodies: International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), International Federation of Interior Designers (IFI), International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA).

The DIA offers this code as a guide to acceptable behaviour.

The DIA’s Constitution provides for the expulsion of members who do not comply.

The second complimentary code of ethics is the joint ACM/IEEE Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. The ACM and the IEEE are two of the largest professional societies for technical fields. They include both a short and a long version, but you will notice the engineering perspective in both. A small extract highlights some of the ethical considerations (as pointed out by your question):

Ethical tensions can best be addressed by thoughtful consideration of fundamental principles, rather than blind reliance on detailed regulations. These Principles should influence software engineers to consider broadly who is affected by their work; to examine if they and their colleagues are treating other human beings with due respect; to consider how the public, if reasonably well informed, would view their decisions; to analyze how the least empowered will be affected by their decisions; and to consider whether their acts would be judged worthy of the ideal professional working as a software engineer. In all these judgments concern for the health, safety and welfare of the public is primary; that is, the "Public Interest" is central to this Code.

EDIT: To follow on from the discussion in the comments, I think it may be relevant to include Marketing Ethics as an example of another multi-disciplinary field (Marketing) with a focus on human research (Market Research), with the associated cognitive science/psychology/societal ethical challenges (deceptive advertising, stereotyping, planned obsolescence).

Driven to the extreme, the research can focus heavily on "neuromarketing", defined as a field that...

... studies consumers' sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective response to marketing stimuli. Researchers use technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in activity in parts of the brain, electroencephalography (EEG) and Steady state topography (SST) to measure activity in specific regional spectra of the brain response, and/or sensors to measure changes in one's physiological state, also known as biometrics, including (heart rate and respiratory rate, galvanic skin response) to learn why consumers make the decisions they do, and what part of the brain is telling them to do it.

The Neuromarketing Science and Business Association (NMSBA) has a code of ethics that aims to establish boundaries of professional conduct when conducting neuromarketing research. Perhaps two points listed under the "Integrity" heading applies directly to your question:

  • Neuromarketing researchers shall take all reasonable precautions to ensure that participants are in no way harmed or stressed as a result of their involvement in a Neuromarketing research project.

  • Neuromarketing researchers shall not deceive participants or exploit their lack of knowledge of neuroscience.

On the less extreme side of marketing research, the American Marketing Association provides their own Statement of Ethics that starts with the very clear norm:

Do no harm. This means consciously avoiding harmful actions or omissions by embodying high ethical standards and adhering to all applicable laws and regulations in the choices we make.

Overall I think these "statements of professional conduct" or "statement of ethics" tend to cover similar ground with regards to how to treat participants in a study, or clients, and how to represent results. It should not be too difficult to develop a meaningful UX-centric ethics statement from these examples. As pointed out by some other answers, this has already started to happen (see the UXPA Code of Professional Conduct specifically).

  • Do you feel they address the issue of ethics in UX design adequately since there is an element of research and user behaviour modification/change in behaviour design, whereas most code of conduct address the professional standards and best practices without discussion the human element involved. I was thinking about what the psychologists and healthcare professionals would have for their standards and combining them with the references you have offered. What do you think? – Michael Lai Apr 28 '14 at 20:29
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    @MichaelLai I think that looking at marketing ethics (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marketing_ethics) could be worthwhile, rather than medical or research ethics. Marketing ethics struggle with some similar "problems", especially when it comes to influencing behaviour. There is also the marketing research components, privacy etc. Would you prefer that I amend my answer to include this? – CJF Apr 29 '14 at 8:35
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    @MichaelLai From the above Wikipedia link, I looked at the American Marketing Association's "Statement of Ethics" (archive.ama.org/Archive/AboutAMA/Pages/…) that covers similar ground. – CJF Apr 29 '14 at 8:40
  • it would definitely be good to include the marketing perspective because of the relevance as you have stated. Thanks. – Michael Lai Apr 30 '14 at 16:14

The User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) has a Code of Professional Conduct for UX practitioners, with oversight provided by an Ethics Advisory Committee. The code is designed to "guide members in the performance of their professional responsibilities" and requires members to "evaluate the risks and benefits of their actions on all stakeholders and ensure these actions meet highest ethical standards".

The code has 7 basic principles:

  • 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

Members are expected to report any violations of the code to the association. Violations may lead to expulsion from the UXPA.

  • Do you think it covers everything though? And how does it deal with conflict of interest between the UX practitioner and the employee? – Michael Lai May 4 '14 at 22:46

I am a human factors and systems engineer and anthropologist who focuses on human computer interaction (HCI). I teach UX, contract with large companies as a UX specialist, and will be beginning my PhD in HCI within the next 6 months. Ethics in UX / HCI is a problem. Why? Because there are no ethical standards. Our discipline is still new, but it is time we grew up and became respectable.

I am actively working on this problem. I am working with reps from a few organizations mentioned in this discussion to update the ethical guidelines, and I know a number of the folks who have either responded or are referenced in this discussion. I have written an article on the topic, which will be published in ACM's Interactions blog http://interactions.acm.org/blog within the next few weeks. The article can also be found here http://www.ashleykarr.com/1/post/2014/04/ethical-design.html.

The following are a few excerpts:

"Something as fundamental to the human experience as ethics ought to be a fundamental part of human-centered design."

"Ethics are almost entirely absent from UX. I have six HCI, UX, and design textbooks and one seminal Air Force report on user interface design within arm’s reach at this very moment. That is a total of seven well-respected texts in our field. Only two of them even mention ethics. Of these two, one textbook has a paragraph on ethics regarding recruiting participants for research. The other has one-and-a-half pages on ethical interaction design, but it fails to even define ethics."

"Why Ethics are Important in Our Field There are three reasons why it is imperative that as makers of interactive computing technology we must embed ethics into our culture, methods, and metrics: - First, what we create and put into the world has actual effects on actual people. Interactive designs do things. We need to make sure that our efforts are going into making things that do good things. - Second, computing technology has the ability to amplify human abilities and spread exponentially in record time. - Third, the ability to design and develop computing technology is to today’s world what literacy was two thousand years ago. We are (tech)literate in a world of people who cannot read. We are the leaders and creators of the sociotechnical system in which we now live. We are powerful - more powerful than we even realize. With great power comes great responsibility.

Allies in the Field Very few professionals within our field are actively incorporating ethics into their work. I have managed to find three, and I highlight their main objectives and messages here. - Florian Egger addresses deceptive technologies. He states there is a fine line between user experience and user manipulation, and insights into user behavior and psychology can be used for ethical or unethical purposes. If designers understand certain “dirty tricks” that their unethical counterparts devise, users can be warned of these practices before falling victim. He also states that persuasion can be used for the good of the user. - Sarah Deighan is conducting research on ethical issues occurring within UX, including how UX professionals view these issues. She is attempting to make ethical resources available for UX professionals. - Rainer Kuhlen wrote The Information Ethics Matrics: Values and rights in electronic environments. He explores new attitudes toward knowledge and information (sharing and open-access) and defines communication rights as human rights. He states that communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need, and the foundation of all social organization. Everyone, everywhere should have the same opportunity to communicate, and no one should be excluded from the benefits of access to information.

Define Ethical Design In order to foster the adoption of ethics into our design and development processes, I am creating a conceptual framework called Ethical Design. It allows designers and design teams to create products, services, and systems that do no harm and improve human situations. Ethical design extends to all people and other living things that are in any way involved in the product, service, and or system lifecycle. Borrowing from, About Face, by Cooper, Reimann, and Cronin, I explain the meaning of doing no harm and improving the human situation below.

Do No Harm - Interpersonal Harm :: loss of dignity, insult, humiliation - Psychological Harm :: confusion, discomfort, frustration, coercion, boredom - Environmental Harm :: pollution, elimination of biodiviersity - Social and Societal Harm :: exploitation, creation or perpetuation of injustice

Improve the Human Situation - Increase understanding :: individual, social, cultural - Increase Efficiency / Effectiveness :: individuals and groups - Improve Communication :: between individuals and groups - Reduce Sociocultural Tension :: between individuals and groups - Improve Equity :: financial, social, legal - Balance cultural diversity with social cohesion"

"In order to make sure I achieve what I have listed in the paragraph above, I am beginning with these three short-term objectives for Ethical Design: - Add ethics as a standard usability requirement and heuristic guideline. - Include a course on ethics and ethical design in every CS / HCI / UX / HF / IxD program. - Include in all CS / HCI / UX / HF / IxD textbooks a chapter on ethics ethical design."

If anyone is truly interested, please get in touch with me. Creating ethical guidelines for our profession is a work in progress, and I am part of that progress. Also, please read John Knight's article mentioned above. It is one of the best pieces I know of on the topic, and it is too long to post here. (I must say that the comment above about summarizing the article rather than posting a link is rather rude. The article is brilliant, will answer this question, and the literature review is to die for!)

  • I am definitely interested in this, and I would like to think that the people at the Unicorn Institute (unicorninstitute.com) have this covered as part of the course. – Michael Lai May 1 '14 at 22:24
  • @AshleyKarrUX which article? – Midas May 23 '16 at 16:43

Unfortunately, there is no standard code in the industry, and anyone can do as they please.

Not only there is no code, Interface Design is often used against the interest of users. In recent years, the shadowy work done by those less moralistic is exposed under the topic nicknamed "Dark Patterns". The main website dedicated to it (http://darkpatterns.org/) explains:

A Dark Pattern is a type of user interface that appears to have been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.

Sad, but true.

As already mentioned by Matt Obee the UXPA provide a comprehensive code of conduct.

Not directly related to UX - but I find parts of the BPS (British Psychological Society) ethical guidelines can be adapted to User Experience. They are built on the principles of:

  • Respect
  • Competence
  • Responsibility
  • Integrity

Each of these principles is broken down further into specific values. These include:

  • Avoid intentional deception of participants
  • Endeavour to support the self-determination of participants
  • Consider all research from the standpoint of research participants

NOTE: These guidelines cover all aspects of working as a psychologist and focus on conducting research, but I feel the core principles can be applied to the field of User Experience.

BPS Ethics and standards

Sometimes I find my self explaining the clients or the employers that what they want is a bad idea and it serves no purpose and it would confuse the users and ruin the application's reputation. Most of the time I get my way by giving them tones of facts and articles online.

There is a line we shouldn't cross, unfortunately 10 out of 100 don't listen and in that case you should go with it , save the conversation logs in case realization kicks in and than just add "I told you so...".

Do your best in terms of code quality UI/UX and if you do you will sleep well at night.

According to my personal work experiences in some big companies, occasionally some of the requirements are not proposed from purely technical point of view. Which means they are not technically correct, but maybe business correct, or legally correct, or even bureaucratically correct.

So to sum up, following the order of your boss is an easy and in most cases a no-harm solution for you. But if you want to challenge and keep your ethnic line, you will receive my acclamation!

  • I think it is important to realize the distinction/difference between a personal ethical/professional standard or code of conduct versus what the company prescribes, becuase as you say they are not always both there or at the same level. I guess I want to believe that UX practitioners are thinking about this as part of their work. I think it is particularly interesting due to the overlap and multi-disciplinary nature of our work and worth exploring further. – Michael Lai May 1 '14 at 22:21

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