Ethics in UX design

Recently I was at a UX conference in Seattle and one of the speakers related a story that got my blood boiling.

This particular consulting designer told the story of being hired to design the first in-flight WiFi service portal for a major airline. The airline makes money when people pay for WiFi, but they lose money when people actually use it – because bandwidth at 30,000 ft is apparently pretty pricey. So this designer, fully conscious that this job “sounds kinda bad” went ahead and purposefully designed an experience that was super easy and polished when it came to taking your money, but crude and difficult to use once you tried to access the service you just paid for.

This is not OK.

As UX designers we have power. We understand little tricks that can manipulate people to exhibit behaviors that our clients and companies deem beneficial. These powers come with responsibility. It is up to each designer to set their own threshold for what is and what isn’t acceptable but I would encourage each of you to listen to your own conscience and if you feel compelled to tell a group of your peers that a job “sounds kinda bad” then deep down you get that it actually is bad.

I understand this because I have been there. I have worked at small agencies where the money was needed. Any client that walked through that door was welcome no matter if they sold used cars, beauty services or payday loans. Sometimes it’s about survival, but you still have to look yourself in the mirror every morning. As soon as I was able, my goal was to work for a company that provided a service that I felt was beneficial to us as a society. I feel like I have been able to achieve that goal working at Zillow.

Ethics are important because things are only going to get worse. The techniques we use to manipulate people are only going to get more and more refined as time goes on. The behavioral science of UX is still in it’s infancy. I look at where the industrial food sciences have gone and it’s a sad, sickening thing they have created. The web was born out of a spirit of freedom and democracy and I would encourage each and every designer to reflect on that when they go to their jobs each morning.

Choose to fight the good fight. Let’s build things that are good for our peers and our planet. Dieter Rams introduced the principle of environmentally friendly design in the 1970’s. Maybe it’s time we started thinking about ethically friendly design.

Those who make things have a great power. Let’s use that power for good with the end goal of making our world a better place. Our bits and pixels may not end up in a landfill someday themselves but they can encourage behaviors that are worse for our environment and our fellow citizens.

I believe we’re better than that.