There are a lot of UX designer being hired in the e-commerce space at the moment, and no doubt many will have experience competing or conflicting interests when it comes to business and sales-driven goals as part of the design requirements.

I have previously asked a question on UXSE about ethical standards for UX designers, and was wondering if it would be against some ethical or professional standard to change user behaviour without being upfront about it. I don't think we should make assumptions about whether or not our design is doing harm or not for the user, but as a minimum our intent should be to make our design decisions transparent to the user. There have been many questions raised about 'dark patterns' and 'anti-patterns' but nothing about how it fits into the framework for ethical practices and guidelines for UX practitioners (that I am aware of).

So is this a reasonable assumption to make, that we should not be 'secretly' modifying user behaviour, whether the intention is to do them some good or not? And I would like to know if it is against any existing or ad hoc ethical standards to modify user behaviour without being explicit about the changes you are introducing even if it is for their benefit (or so we assume/in line with our intent).

Even when Google makes updates to the Chrome browser it asks whether the user wants to apply the updates rather than just doing it automatically (unless you have those settings). Creating applications and plug-ins that won't work unless you update the browser, and not letting users know explicitly that you won't support them in future versions would be an example of forcing users to change their behaviour, but it is still something that can't happen unless the user explicitly indicates that they wish to do so (I believe).

Using a 'physical' example, if we design a new fire escape or exit sign in a building then we are potentially introducing a new behaviour. The workplace health and safety regulations might require users to participate in fire drills in order to become familiar with the location and procedure for evacuation in the event of a fire. One day you might find that the fire escape is fitted with a coin slot that requires you to insert money in order to activate the door, but that would still require you to make a decision between putting in money and open the door or to find an alternative path to escape. If one day the coin slot was removed, but as you pass through the door a device scans your building pass and docks the same amount of money from your pay then that would be an example of changing the user behaviour without their permission.

Based on all the answers and feedback, I think I can summarize the question using these two questions:

  • Question A: Is it ethical for a UX designer to design with the intent to change user behaviour for their own benefit (regardless of the benefit to the user)?
  • Question B:Is it ethical for a UX designer to design with the intent to change user behaviour without communicating it to them (either explicitly or indirectly)?

7 Answers 7


It depends on what behavior is being changed

Milton Glaser created the following illustration he calls "The Road To Hell", which shows gradients in design ethics:

The Road to Hell

For most cases in The Road to Hell, the design objective is to convince users to buy something. But the illustration shows that the nature of the product and the type of designed behavior can dramatically shape the level of ethical concern involved.

Everyone is subject to professional ethics

Designers cannot shirk ethical responsibility by hiding behind the logic of "I'm just doing my job".

  • Certainly in the US and other advanced economies, I was just doing my job is not a valid excuse for designing something that helps perpetuate criminal malware/hacking, corporate fraud, insider trading, drug trade, or other crimes.
  • Modern enterprise risk frameworks typically diffuse corporate ethics throughout the organization (no employee is too lowly to avoid ethical responsibility).
  • Legal frameworks addressing corporate ethics such as the Dodd-Frank act provide for and encourage whistleblowing and reporting facilities available to all employees.
  • The National Business Ethics Survey in the US has some very interesting data on the prevalence of ethical violations in businesses, and provides support for why employees as well as managers need to participate in ethics vigilance (aka corruption occurs at all levels).

Once an ethical issue is identified with behavioral design, I'm not sure that the right thing to do is necessarily to inform the user or seek consent. The Road to Hell aptly illustrates that in some cases the right thing to do may be to blow the whistle, or change the underlying product, or resign your job.

  • 3
    +1 for resign your job - I've been down that road plenty of times, and nobody will give you a pat on the back for it, but it does make sleeping at night a lot easier.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 12:51

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." - Henry Ford

I understand the dilemma. I do agree with @Jamezrp. We as UX designers/engineers are between the function of the system, business objectives of the firms we consult/work with, and the most importantly the user who is going to use the system to meet his personal goal. This is a tricky place to be. Ideally a firm might want me to blatantly sell adverts on every page, front and center, assuming that would get them most revenue. A developer would ask for a simple bare bones UI that directly fits with her architecture of the system. And user might even want the system to read his mind to know exactly that she wants.

We are positioned at a place where we have to tweak all three of them. Tone down, direct, polish requirements and expectations. We work with them to come up with the best approach. The first two are at our side to have detailed design and UX discussions. The User not so much. We then have to do Usability Tests to see what user does, why she does it and how currently she does it. Once we understand the why, we at times Need to tweak the how part to strike the perfect balance.

To design the best UX, pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Self-reported claims are unreliable, as are user speculations about future behavior. Users do not know what they want. - Jakob Nielsen

Who then should take a position of how things should be presented? It is where we come into play. We have tools like A-B testing, formative-summative tests to glean into user's psyche and understand mental models. It is then imperative for us to use our experience and expertise to come up with what users need and and not what they think they want. We have examples of hamburger menus, evolution of date time pickers from text based ones to the latest android android lollipop variants. From first impressions, it does appear that we are changing user behaviors, and it is true. Keeping up with the change in technology and interfaces, we need to come up with better and efficient solutions that balance the variables to bring out a product that satisfies all three.

Having said that, one must also not get carried away. Don Norman puts it nicely.

"Rule of thumb: if you think something is clever and sophisticated beware-it is probably self-indulgence." - Donald Norman (The Design of Everyday Things)

  • The questions was about designing something and take responsibility for a solution/ decision or not? You are argueing: No, just test it with the user. If it is good fine if not change it. But, but, but: How are you deciding for your proposed solution you are testing? What morale objectives are you considering? If any at all? Would you sell weapons to children? Would you sell a birth control pill online? Why and why not? That is the question? Not to test or not? How are you deciding for a designed solution?
    – FrankL
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 6:46
  • 2

The job of a UX designer is not to make sure the product makes sense, it's to lead the user to the end goal. For many of us, that's to get the user to buy something or spend money in some way. The question of ethics plays little role there: to drive the business you need revenue, and that comes from a UX that promotes making purchases.

That said, it is possible to provide a bad (a better term is distracting) UX with the intent of tricking users into doing something they don't want to do. Knowing that customers stay longer when they're not treated like children or cheated, it makes sense to not ever do anything like that except to improve the overall experience, like a magician would use deception to entertain.

I've been in situations where I was told to design something I knew would confuse and potentially cause issues with customers. We've all been on the receiving end of it. Such practices aren't ethical in my opinion because the harm they pose, generally, is minimal. Something like breaking the law...that's different. If you hide your terms of service or lie in them, that's different. Though neither of those is a UX problem, though good UX can help solve them.

Eventually the only ethical dilemma a UX designer will face is "does the user get the best experience possible, or am I not delivering that because the business is forcing something different?" And that's not ethical so much as it is just doing your job.

  • 5
    Such practices aren't ethical in my opinion because the harm they pose, generally, is minimal. Something wrong with this sentence?
    – DanielST
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 13:30
  • @slicedtoad: Such as? Commented May 25, 2015 at 15:09
  • 3
    @LightnessRacesinOrbit Either an accidental negative or "because" should be "but". Right now it says that such practices are not ethical because of how small the harm is.
    – DanielST
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 15:12
  • @slicedtoad: Oh, right. Commented May 25, 2015 at 15:13
  • 1
    It is a slippery slope when we are talking about 'relative' amounts of harm rather than whether we do harm or not... But the more alarming issue is whether that perceived harm is done intentionally or not. Take online sports gambling for example, do you think it is a conflict of interest for the UX designer to improve the experience without harming the user?
    – Michael Lai
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 22:58

In answer to your question: No you shouldn't assume that you're supposed to avoid modifying user behaviour. That's part of your job...modify it. Also, no it is not against ethical standards to modify user behaviour without being explicit about it. You're hardly going to move a button for example and then put a label on it saying 'We moved this button because now you'll convert better'.

As others have mentioned...everyone has their own professional ethical boundaries and you should never do anything that you feel crosses yours. I personally would never compromise my ethics for the sake of some business product or strategy, but some might. Obviously never do anything that could lead to harming people physically, psychologically, financially etc and frankly if you're in a business that expects that of you then you ought to report them to the authorities.

Additionally...if you don't believe in your companies product...quit.


Very good question and diffuse circumstances: I'm not sure we will find a solution, not in this board because it is about ethical and moral issues.

I would like to throw two more candidates into the ring, which are more subtle than just "moving a button to make it better", namely gamification and nudging. Both aim to change users' behaviour in a chosen direction.

Gamification is used to motivate users to do certain tasks by giving them small rewards on the right, intended path, like Stack Exchange is doing with its bounties, answer ratings and reputation score. This is how you train your dog and it works well in the short term.

Nudging is a sort of parental advisory way. Mint.com is doing it well. They show users concrete pictures of rewards for their savings. It is for the good of users in order to help them save money. This is how your parents/ teachers get through to you. It is very subtle and works in the long run, but it is very pushy.

Both can be used for good or bad, because they are techniques and therefore amoral. I think it will be always a cloudy and diffuse area for designers/ people to decide whether to do this or that solution. In the end you personally are responsible for the outcome - not "it is my job" (aka I was forced by circumstances). We are all clever people and design offers several paths for a solution. If you feel uncomfortable with a certain path, just offer a different, less pushy, solution. For sure, you will find solid arguments to defend your solution.


Answer (A): It depends on the degree to which you are pushing in your chosen direction. And it depends how comfortable (ethically and morally) you feel with it.

Answer (B): Same as (A), because you are not the one who decides if it is benefical to users. You just believe it is, which sets you in situation (A).

  • I think ethics sets the boundaries for what we should and should not do as designers, while moral values gives individuals the flexibility to move between as they feel comfortable. I recognize that changing user behaviour can be a good and bad thing, although here the questions deals with the issue of whether this should be communicated explicitly to the user or not. You can introduce gamification and nudging by directly communicating it to the user or not, so the question is whether we can set boundaries by using designer intent and designer user communication or not.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 6:53
  • 1
    @MichaelLai Okay, do you understand the gamification concept by reading this SE tour - introducing bounties, scores, etc?ux.stackexchange.com/tour I think: people wont read it, because it is too text-heavy. People wont understand the underlying concept.You can't get out of responsibility because "you told them you will nudge them"
    – FrankL
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 7:02
  • I definitely don't think the UX designer can get out of their responsibility by merely communicating what they are doing, so I think the boundaries or framework for ethical design must come from both intent and communication, not just one or the other. However, I think ethics and morals are separate issues that also need to be dealt with separately, but that's certainly out of scope for this question and site :p
    – Michael Lai
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 7:07
  • @MichelLai: Do you know the Milgram Experiment in the 1960? They told participants to torture people with electroshocks. But it is for the good! The science. The result was scary! Most people tortured others even seeing them crying: But they told them! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment
    – FrankL
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 7:08
  • @MichaelLai Actually Im happy to work in logistics and not to ask myself this hard questions everyday....
    – FrankL
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 7:10

Whenever you find yourself asking the question ‘Is X ethical?’ chances are the answer is ‘no’.

This rule of thumb applies to UX as it does to all of life, and this particular case is no exception.

  • 2
    Ethics is as much about good as bad. Read en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethics
    – Chris
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 12:40
  • @Chris given that good is the opposite (or complementary) of bad, whatever society determines good to be leads to the definition of bad. Perhaps it matters what the starting point is, but perhaps it doesn't...
    – Michael Lai
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 22:35
  • I agree @MichaelLai. My point was that Anonymous says if you have to ask if something is ethical the answer is no...which I'm sure you'll agree is problematic
    – Chris
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 7:49

A vast majority of us are employed in the "selling crap" industry to some extent. We live in a consumer-driven world and our roles a big part of that machine.

Business is in the business of making money. And if we're not helping business make money, we're not doing our jobs.

That said if you don't support the crap that is being sold, then via your own personal ethics, you may want to think twice about taking that particular gig.

And it will ultimately have to be a personal decision. We're not all the same. And we're not all going to agree on what is wrong or right--namely because a lot of it is very gray.

My personal stance is that if I'm making the user's experience better, I'm doing my job. Are there certain products I won't help sell and organizations I won't work for? Certainly. But that's based on my personal ethics and I wouldn't expect them to be shared by everyone universally. But I've come to terms with the fact that I help to sell things. And most people don't need most things most companies sell, so I've just have to find peace with that. I take pride in helping my client's customers experiences better...even if I don't agree with the product or service 100%.

Another way to put it, company 'a' might be selling bananas. Company 'b' might be selling tobacco. We could argue one of those products is mostly good, the other mostly bad. Some may have ethical conflicts with that.

But as a UX designer, I could decide that regardless of whether the consumer wants to buy a banana or a cigarette, they both deserve a pleasant shopping experience. And ultimately that's what a UX designer is supposed to be focusing on...improving the user's experience with the task at hand.

To answer your specific questions:

Is it ethical for a UX designer to design with the intent to change user behavior for their own benefit (regardless of the benefit to the user)?

In general? Sure. That's something a lot of us have to do on a regular basis. Marketing insists on promoting that upsell in that one spot. Legal insists on adding less-than-favorable terms to that agreement over there. Sales want to promote a lackluster feature with fluffed up copy.

But in particular, it's entirely up to the individual UX designer.

Is it ethical for a UX designer to design with the intent to change user behaviour without communicating it to them (either explicitly or indirectly)?

This would be entirely dependent on context. And, as well as the individual UX designer. Is re-designing the UI of a slot machine to change the betting behaviors of the user so they spend more faster unethical? I bet if you ask 20 people you'll get 20 different answers.

  • As it so happens, I have worked for a company that includes in its products and services gaming machines. I don't have a problem with companies that makes the experience of people who can afford to spend the money enjoy it sensibly. I do have issues if they think that it is a UX designer's job to do what they ask of you without consideration for that designer's moral and ethical standards, regardless of whether it is in line with the company's social and corporate responsibilities. But in the end, should the question be based on whether we are doing the users harm or not?
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 8:15
  • @MichaelLai What is defined as harm is relative and often subjective. :)
    – DA01
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 8:23
  • That's very dangerous if this is also the same type of oath that doctors swear to abide by... :D
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 8:36

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