One area that definitely does not attract enough attention in the topics being discussed in UX design is where the line needs to be drawn when it comes to design practices that influence user behaviour. We have seen many examples where UX design practices and techniques have not been used to serve the interest of users (e.g. in-app purchases disguised as action triggers or call-to-actions designed to entice young users that are easily influenced into making purchase decisions).

In a normal product/service design process, where does ethical guidelines in design come into consideration (if at all)? And should the UX designers have a say in creating and upholding this guideline as part of ensuring that their deliverable meets best UX design practices? I would be interested if there are any examples of this incorporated in a design guideline or framework document.


4 Answers 4


I am not a UX designer, however, I am a technologist working in ethical technology and I regularly present at conferences regarding these factors. I also am an NIH-funded clinical researcher, and research ethics are central to my daily work. I believe that UX ethics do differ from the ethics of graphical design as well as design research.

First, UX issues differ from graphical design ethics simply because UX is not merely graphical design. This is easy proven when we can and do design devices that have non-visual feedback mechanisms: tactors that vibrate, speakers that beep, etc. Furthermore, graphic design regularly elides the concerns of blind or vision-impaired persons, but ethical technological integration requires that accessibility be treated as a fundamental principle.

UX ethics also differ from design research ethics because research ethics are based upon core principles such as beneficence and equipoise. In product design, many of these factors don't come into play; for instance, we do not need to have a legitimate research question to ethically justify the inclusion of human subjects.

I strongly disagree with @Ades's answer. It is trivially simple to construct user experience that fail ethical tests under the guise of serving the user. I'll provide an example from some of my talks.

Samsung is selling a smart refrigerator. They don't really call it that, though---they call it a "Family Hub." Among the many features of this device is the ability to take a photograph of the interior of the refrigerator every time the doors shut.

These photographic data are made available to the owners via the cloud. This is a great user experience! If you're at the store and you forget whether you need eggs, you can simply use your smartphone to find out instantly without any need for prior preparation (e.g. no list-making). This is a powerful convenience feature designed with users' best interests in mind.

Unless you or a family member have, or have recovered from, an eating disorder. Now, you have a photostream of every time you closed the door; an endless stream of food pictures, a quantifiable reminder of how frequently you hunger or how much you eat.

Or maybe you have Multiple Sclerosis and you take Capaxone, which requires refrigeration. Now, you are entrusting sensitive medical information---the kind of information that if leaked can and has led to people being fired or not-hired---to a provider not governed by medical records laws.

These issues represent ethical concerns with well-established practices in their fields. There are clinical guidelines for treating eating disorders. There are medical records laws. People who work in these fields are bound to adhere to standard ethical praxis, so by default, there are already ethics in place governing these experiences.

The UX designer has a challenging role to be aware of and consider all these concerns. It is no more permissible to tell the user "just don't use that feature" than it is to tell a patient "if you don't want your medical data getting leaked then don't go to the doctor."

Not every feature has to accommodate every possible user. But to the greatest extent possible, the designers must consciously decide which users to leave behind. Those ethics matter, because we live in a world where normal, intended use can cause significant user harm. I don't believe these issues are suitably covered in either the fields of graphical design or design research.

  • +1 some really good examples and a very good answer overall :)
    – Michael Lai
    May 9, 2016 at 20:53
  • Fantastic answer. Have you considered turning it into a blog / medium post? Apr 19, 2017 at 11:22
  • Do you think we've made much progress since you first posted a response to this question?
    – Michael Lai
    Dec 14, 2021 at 1:41

Ethics and UX are on the same side.

It's kind of a non-issue. Because the objective of UX, always serves the interests of the users. The point where UI starts to confuse users and tricks them into pressing something they wouldn't have pressed otherwise, then the UX has failed on that application.

And yes, you should step in. As a UX practitioner you might not have the authority to enforce right UX approaches. But the least you can do is to point out the 'wrongdoings' and suggest the 'best practices'.


I'd say

  1. Ethics and UX are orthogonal. You can choose to be ethical or unethical in applying your UX skills.
  2. Ethics are domain dependent. Medical systems have different ethical priorities than commerce systems. If you want to be ethical (or unethical) you need to understand the ethics of the domain. I think the domain experts should have the final say on ethics, not the UX experts.
  3. Some domains have more clear ethics (e.g medical systems) and some domains have less clear ethics (e.g. social networking systems).
  4. The ethics of software systems is constantly in flux. What was ethical 2 years ago might not be ethical today.
  • These are interesting point that you have raised here. It would seem contradictory that you can practice UX design in an unethical way, unless there are user experiences which are intended to bring harm to the user. As for ethics being domain dependent, what happens when UX designers have to consider issues across a number of different domains (as they often do when balancing user, business and technical requirements). I do agree that the ethics of software systems might change, but the basic principles of privacy, transparency and equality for all users should not change.
    – Michael Lai
    Dec 31, 2014 at 0:17
  • @MichaelLai - I don't the there are such things as "basic principles of privacy, transparency and equality". It depends on both the domain and the culture. I guess my main contention here is that ethics is not a UX issue, that UX pros must rely on ethics experts (of the given domain) and not bring this into the gigantic umbrella that is UX. Very interesting subject you brought up, hope we get more opinions in this thread.
    – obelia
    Dec 31, 2014 at 0:58
  • How about 'do no harm' to the user? The same kind of oath that medical practitioners take in their profession that has not changed for centuries...
    – Michael Lai
    Oct 11, 2015 at 21:34
  • @MichaelLai - hard to argue against 'do no harm', but what does it mean? One group might claim "preaching religion X does no harm", while another group considers religion X threatening. An interesting, recent controversy came up around the project forthepeeple.com - the founders thought it a positive, presumably harmless idea, while most of the internet thought it a very harmful idea. Who's right? In this case the market seemed to have determined it harmful, compelling a redesign to avoid the perceived harmfulness.
    – obelia
    Oct 13, 2015 at 17:06
  • I think this is where intent matters more than the actual action, and I think it would be interesting to see how medical professionals make this distinction as well (euthanasia being a very good example). Obviously different people will have different standards, and moral/ethic codes can also change over time, but it is one thing to say that it is too hard to determine what is ethical, and another thing to ignore it altogether.
    – Michael Lai
    Oct 13, 2015 at 20:36

I am sure a lot of people around here have read most of the Dark Patterns all around the web. It is hard to say where to draw the line especially when the UX designers have to deal with product managers and sales/marketing people. It is hard because each of position within a product team will have 'equal' weight. So yes, some dark patters will make more money in the short term, and that might be what the company wants/needs for the time being.

In terms of ethics, it will be down to each and every individual to conclude what works and what doesn't. I believe this is part of the skill of being able to do UX work.

  • It would seem to me that 'dark patterns' are either the result of ignoring the ethical standards by which UX designers should hold themselves accountable for, or the lack of corporate/social responsibilities shown by the company employing UX practitioners (or both). But I think ultimately the UX designers must be the ones that make a stand and be held accountable.
    – Michael Lai
    Dec 30, 2014 at 23:29

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