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Be an Agent of Change  -  Check these resources to help you build more ethical designs

September 18, 2023

This article is written in commemoration of the World Interaction Design Day 2023: Ethics, Equity, +Responsibility

The role of today’s designer goes far beyond simply creating beautiful interfaces and experiences. You can no longer design without considering the consequences of how what you’re creating impacts individuals, society and the world. 

As a designer you have the power to choose if you design an offboarding process as easy as the sign up, if you want to emotionally manipulate your users to make them buy or apply for something they didn’t intend to, if you apply an accessible colour contrast and font so that more people can perceive your content, and so on.

While there’s not an official code of ethics for digital design, there’s plenty of areas designers should focus on when designing ethical products. We summed them up the following way: 

Ethical Design…

- Is Transparent

- Prioritises Accessibility and Inclusivity

- Is Human-Centered

- Encourages Co-Design

- Is Sustainable

Ethical design is such a comprehensive term that you might feel quite overwhelmed. You’re probably wondering — how can I actually practice ethical design in my daily work? 

Luckily there’s plenty of frameworks, tools and best practices you can take advantage of. We’ve selected a few of them and organised them here ⬇️.

Person holding clear glass panel

Photo by Aleks Dahlberg on Unsplash

Ethical Design is Transparent

Transparency is key to an ethical design. Often pressured by stakeholders to meet business objectives, designers resort to the use of manipulative tricks intended to make users make something they don’t mean to, such as buying or signing up (deceptive patterns). Lately, privacy statements and data protection policies have been undermining people’s trust in brands. They are intentionally hard to understand and don’t explain why the company needs users information or how they will use it. They’re also virtually impossible to avoid if users really want to use the website or app, which frequently ends up with them having their personal data shared with third-parties.

Transparency builds a sense of trust, and when users trust a brand they’re more likely to be loyal consumers. 

"Unless there are changes to the way we communicate data collection, algorithm decisions and advertising models, trust will continue to erode. And that’s where designers can use their skills to help take responsibility for how we are collecting and using people’s data and help restore trust."

Sheryl Cababa in “It’s time to start designing for transparency”

💡 Resources:

  • 📚 We, the Data — Human Rights in the Digital Age by Wendy H. Wong — A rallying call for extending human rights beyond our physical selves — and why we need to reboot rights in our data-intensive world.
  • 📚 Tragic Design by Jonathan Shariat and Cynthia Savard Saucier — Understand how poorly designed products can anger, sadden, exclude, and even kill people who use them, and what can you do to avoid making similar mistakes.
  • 📚 The Ethical Design Handbook by Trine Falbe, Kim Andersen and Martin Frederiksen — With practical techniques to make honest interfaces work for digital products. Help your business grow sustainably — without dark patterns — and comply with GDPR and CCPA.
  • Deceptive Patterns— A go-to-source for everything related to deceptive patterns, where you can find deceptive patterns explained with examples. 
  • Design for Transparency— An article by Sheryl Cababa where she proposes five principles for designing with transparency. 
  • Design Ethically — An ethical design framework and a library of activities to help designers integrate ethical design into their practice.
  • Ethics for Designers — An online toolkit to help designers develop a set of ethical skills: moral sensitivity, moral creativity, and moral advocacy.
  • The Ethics Centre — Principles to consider when designing ethical technology in order to avoid ethical missteps.

A man with a cane and a woman on a wheelchair walking down a dirt road

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Ethical Design prioritises Accessibility and Inclusivity

Accessibility and Inclusivity are hot topics at the moment, particularly in the European Union (EU) where, from 2025, companies will have the legal obligation to have accessible digital products

For a designer getting started with accessibility the first important step is fully understanding the diversity of people who use or might use your product, and how they use it (frequently resourcing to assistive technologies). You’ll probably be surprised how one simple design decision you made (let’s say picking a colour palette) can prevent a person with vision impairments from perceiving the content on the website. There’s a series of YouTube videos, TikToks and Reels where you can see how people with disabilities navigate the Web and what they commonly have to struggle with.

Then you can start learning how you can design more accessible products. In this department, the WCAG are a pretty important resource. After designing or if you’re accessing the accessibility of an existing website, you can take advantage of checklists and automatic evaluators to ensure your building it the right way. Another important way to access accessibility is conducting usability tests with people with disabilities.

“The power of the Web is in its universality.
Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

💡 Resources:

  • 📚 Accessibility for Everyone by Laura Kalbag — Understand disabilities and impairments and learn how to plan for, evaluate, and test accessible design.
  • 📚 Mismatch — How Inclusion Shapes Design by Kat Holmes — How inclusive methods can build elegant design solutions that work for all.
  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) — The international standard for how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. 
  • The A11Y Project —A community-driven effort to make digital accessibility easier. You can find a checklist to help you improve the experience for everyone using your site, and a list of a series of resources (software, books, blogs, online tools) on accessibility. 
  • Inclusive Design Toolkit— This toolkit was developed by several researchers from the University of Cambridge and covers what is inclusive design, and why does it matter, explains the types of user capabilities, provides tools (to simulate a reduction in vision, for example), presents digital personas who highlight some of the factors that affect digital exclusion, and many other resources.
  • Microsoft Inclusive Design — This methodology considers the full range of human diversity by learning from people with a range of perspectives. You’ll learn about the Inclusive Design principles, and get access to a set tools and activities. 

Person standing on huge rock

Photo by Dan Cook on Unsplash

Ethical Design is Human-Centered

UX expert William Hudson makes an interesting point on the human label and why we should talk about ‘human-centered design’ rather than ‘user-centered design’ (as it’s also referred to). By using the term ‘user’, it seems like we’re dehumanising them, making them sound just like another component of the system. 

Human-centered design is about empathy and understanding each individual’s situation, with particular needs and behaviours. It’s primarily based on the direct engagement with real users by researching, understanding and interacting with them. Putting real people in the centre of the design process and designing systems according to the user’s real context of use, will allow you to create more useful and usable products. 

“Design for people the way they are, not for how you want them to be.”

Don Norman in 

💡 Resources:

  • Ledger of Harms — This collection by the Center of Humane Technology gathers studies and articles that show clear effects of harmful tech in today’s society, including physical and mental health, social relationships and politics.
  • The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design— Everything you need to understand the people you’re designing for, to have more effective brainstorms, to prototype your ideas, and to ultimately arrive at more creative solutions.
  • Humane by Design — Guidance for designing ethically humane digital products and services through patterns focused on user well-being.
  • AI Ethics Cards — A tool to help teams remain human-centered while designing data-driven, intelligent products, services, and systems.
  • The Tarot Cards of Tech — A tool to encourage creators to think about the outcomes technology can create, from unintended consequences to opportunities for positive change. 
  • The Little Book of Design Research Ethics — An IDEO guide on how to seek and share insights about people’s lives in an ethical way.

Female hands holding 2 pieces of a puzzle

Photo by Vardan Papikyan on Unsplash

Ethical Design encourages Co-Design

What if, as a designer, you could work together with the people you’re designing for? The co-design methodology is about calling people in to participate in the design process and actively collaborate with them to come up with innovative, practical and relevant solutions. To apply co-design it’s important to take advantage of tools that spark ideas and help participants articulate them.

Co-design is more than a process. It is a social movement focused on challenging and changing inequitable power structures. Designing with, not for people.

KA McKercher in Beyond Stick Notes

💡 Resources:

  • Co-design. tools— Tools and tutorials to help you get started with co-design.
  • 18F Methods —  A collection of tools to bring human-centered design into your project. The tools are organised into the four phases of a design project — discover, decide, make, and validate — with explanations and materials to download.
  • Beyond Stick Notes — You can find all about what is co-design and what is not, the process, principles, and mindsets. You can also learn all about it in the book Beyond Sticky Notes is your guide to doing co-design, for real by KA McKercher.
  • The Co-Create Handbook — Co-create is a community funded by the EU where you can access multiple resources on co-design and download this handbook for training yourself and others in collaborative design.

Person holding green leaf plants

Photo by rafael albornoz on Unplash

Ethical Design is Sustainable

If you think the websites or apps you design are irrelevant to sustainability you’re quite wrong. Every data transmission uses electricity, which is often powered by coal and emits CO2. Choosing a green and environmentally friendly hosting, optimising image and video, using fewer fonts, offering a dark mode option will help reducing your website’s carbon footprint. 

Besides using their skills to create the best possible solution for people, today’s designers also need to consider the impact of their design choices on society, and the planet. They can certainly use their skills to make a sustainable change in the world.

“Sustainability, at its core, is simply about making sure that what we use and how we use it today, doesn’t have negative impacts on current and future generations’ ability to live prosperously on this planet.”

Leyla Acaroglu in “Quick Guide to Sustainable Design Strategies”

💡 Resources:

  • 📚 Design for a Better World — Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered by Don Norman — World-recognised design leader, Don Norman, reflects on how human behaviour brought our world to the brink, and how human behaviour can save us.
  • 📚 Sustainable Web Design by Tom Greenwood — Understand how things like image files and coding languages can affect a website’s environmental impact, and how you can make low-carbon and more energy efficient design choices. 
  • 📚 Designing for Sustainability by Tim Frick — Learn how to apply sustainability principles for creating speedy, user-friendly, and energy-efficient digital products and services.
  • 📚 Design is the Solution — The Future of Design Will Be Sustainable by Nathan Shedroff —An update of the 2009 book Design is the Problem where you can learn how your design process can lead to more sustainable products, with new frameworks, like ‘The Living Principles’ and ‘The Circular Economy’, and a series of new tools. 
  • Ethical Design booklet — An approach to socially sustainable digitalisation, with canvases to steer design in an ethical direction.
  • IBM Design for sustainability — IBM designers share their guiding sustainability principles and how to apply sustainability consciousness. 
  • Sustainability Guide — This guide from an EU project provides inspiration and knowledge by gathering information, methods and good examples of how to use design to achieve a sustainable and circular business as well as social development.
  • Sustainable Design Strategies—  A comprehensive Medium article by Leyla Acaroglu on sustainable design and EcoDesign — a core tool in the matrix of approaches that enables the Circular Economy.
  • Sustainable UX Network — This is a community of designers from all around the world meant to exchange ideas on how to promote and facilitate sustainability through their creative work. They’ve also prepared a toolkit with ways and methods to bring more sustainable action to your work.

. . . 

Summing it up: As designers, if we want to create ethical designs, they must be transparent, accessible to all, inclusive, human-centered, sustainable and created in collaboration with people. All while dealing with business stakeholders and their business goals. Wow! 😬

While it might seem quite overwhelming, we don’t have to learn all about ethical design overnight. However, we can gradually make an effort to understand more about how to build more ethical designs and start acting as an agent of change.

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At Xperienz we strive to design simple, ethical, human-centered digital experiences that people find easy-to-use and meet their needs. We work within three major areas -  Research, Strategy, and Design. Feel free to get in touch.

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