Ethics and UX

I was recently asked to recommend some books that a new product manager could use to introduce UX to an organization that was completely unfamiliar with it. It made me realize that I hadn’t really perused books for “beginners,” possibly since the era of Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Scott Krug–a book I can wholeheartedly recommend, albeit one with a somewhat narrower focus on user research and usability testing. 1

So I did a bit of searching and came across UX for Beginners by Joel Marsh, a newish offering from O’Reilly (and the original blog that spawned the book). I recommended it sight unseen, with the caveat that I hadn’t read it but felt like the O’Reilly imprint was a good sign. I requested the book from the library and read it eagerly when it arrived.  It’s pretty good–there is a lot to like (you can tell that means there is a big BUT coming right?)2 I was pleasantly surprised by the IA coverage–it’s lightweight, but that’s essentially the nature of this book, so not really a criticism. Everything he has to say about IA is on target and as we know, there are plenty of UX books that purport to be exhaustive and yet fail to mention information architecture between their covers.

So what’s the hesitancy in a full-throated recommendation? Alas–I was aghast at chapter 7, the section on designing to influence behavior. Setting aside the glib tone of the book generally, this section is essentially a nonchalant how-to manual on using psychology to manipulate end users to achieve your desired outcomes. There isn’t any indication that designers could be wading into questionable ethical territory or that we might have a moral obligation to consider the impact of our work–apart from a throw-away comment about “now you know how to become a cult leader,” which simultaneously nods at and dismisses the fact that this is potentially a fraught area. Marsh would not have needed to go deep here, but a nod to leaders in the field who have addressed the topic thoughtfully, would have made a world of difference–to say nothing of adding an entry for ethics to the book’s index. As currently handled this section strikes me as both irresponsible and in danger of undermining the professionalism of the field, long-term.

That led me to ask myself–who are the thought leaders in the field when it comes to ethics? BJ Fogg came immediately to mind, although ironically Stanford’s Persuasive Technology lab appears to have created a page on ethics largely in response to criticism about the lack of visibility of ethical considerations on the site. While Fogg can claim some credit as having published the first peer reviewed paper on the ethics of persuasive technology (read that here), his work has likely laid the foundation that resulted in Marsh’s lack of critical thinking in this area–Marsh is obviously a smart guy, but his book reads as though it never crossed his mind that designing to manipulate human behaviour could be anything other than net neutral.

There are a lot of good articles acknowledging that UX design can have ethically challenging decision points (there is even a term for this, Dark Patterns), but these are largely one-off articles, I haven’t really found a robust body of work around ethical UX design. That may be a sign of the comparative youth of the field, it may be that we’re at a point in our professional development where many of us have recognized that there are ethical considerations at play in our work but haven’t gotten beyond the admonishment stage. This idea is echoed in a short piece on the ethics of UX from Bentley University that identifies distraction as the deadliest ethical quandry UX designers currently face and concludes, rather anemically, “The likelihood of distraction and its consequences should become an area of intense focus in the UX discipline’s research agenda.”

Tristan Harris is the biggest name and most visible effort in this area. Harris is a former Google Design Ethicist and founder of the Time Well Spent “movement” and the Center for Humane Tech. He has amassed quite a bit of notoriety over the past couple years:

It is unsurprising that thinking about ethics is coming out of folks who work with social media, gaming, and “apps,” since they are at an intersection of being recognizably problematic and awash with cash. But concerns about the ethical implications of UX design pre-date the advent of social media–Nielsen Norman group was writing articles with provocative titles like “How to Kill Patients Through Bad Design” back in 2005 and I’m sure earlier examples can be easily found. Jonathan Shariat wrote a very memorable Medium piece in 2014 on the ways bad UI design can encourage and compound medical errors.

Is licensure the answer?

Ever insightful, Jared Spool recently tweeted that its only a matter of time before UX designers will need to be licensed to have viable career opportunities. I resisted the idea of licensure/certification earlier in my career because I feared it would stifle creativity and stunt our ability to uncover the true parameters of an emergent discipline. But what was reasonable resistance in the 90’s is perhaps passe and Aimee Gonzalez-Cameron astutely asks “Is UX Really Still an Emerging Discipline?” and it does seem like it’s time to begin actively exploring this. I don’t want ethics to be absent from our professional identity and obligations–it’s a fundamental oversight that radically reduces the value of a book like UX for Beginners.

This isn’t a simple binary of should we or shouldn’t we. Embracing the idea of licensure is an early step on a road that is likely to be long and arduous as our profession answers questions around who and how. In fact, anticipating the kind of blood feuds that are likely to occur as the professionalization of UX gets hammered out is a sane reason to resist it!

It’s not clear to me that traditional academia is succeeding spectacularly when it comes to providing the foundational underpinnings for the profession, although there certainly are some good departments. I also think there is promise in programs like Prime Digital Academy, although I don’t think they will get us all the way there, either. I have long thought that we would be best served by a combination of traditional education coupled with an apprenticeship model. Unfortunately, the association between apprenticeship and the skilled trades seems to make knowledge workers wary, rightfully or not. And, perhaps even more problematically it’s not clear that Corporate America would be willing to invest in something like UX apprenticeship at a time when the risk associated with training and education has now moved almost entirely away from employers and onto employees.

This seems ripe for a panel at next year’s Summit…

Additional Reading in this vein:

Evil by Design by Chris Nodder

How Bad UX Killed Jenny by Jonathan Shariat

Should UX Researchers Need a License?  by Sam Spencer

Is UX Really Still an Emerging Discipline? by Aimee Gonzalez-Cameron

  1. There are also many things that I appreciate about Krug’s seminal first book, Don’t Make Me Think, but I am reluctant to recommend that one to folks outside UX because I’ve been burned one too many times by executives who flip through the book on a plane and reinterpret the book as “I don’t need to think.” This is not Krug’s fault, but it is a problem.
  2. “Everyone I know has a big but!” Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, 1985

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