Are you using unethical practices in UX design?

Design must accommodate users… or must it? Is there a chance that our choices as users are influenced by design, perhaps even manipulated? Answers to these questions can be found in this blog.

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As designers, our top priority is to put our users on the first place. 

That is why, for example, we avoid using dark patterns- out of good intentions for the end user. 

But frequently, our designs possess hidden ethical problems. These problems can stem from organizational design procedures already set in place or from our inability to predict how the product will be utilized and consumed in real-world circumstances. But let’s start braking this topic down.

Influencing behavior through design

One of the aspects of this profession that seemed to excite me the most when I was a young(er) designer was the capacity to influence behavior through design. It was almost magical when I realized I could make a choice between developing a user interface, and pointing someone on a specific route. 

Then, I discovered B.J. Fogg's writing: in particular, his book “Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do”. It is a complete list of various superpowers we designers may wield put in writing. I was fascinated by this idea. 

But far more perplexing was the duty it placed on our shoulders. The use of persuasive design strategies can be extremely effective. Nevertheless, depending on how they are applied, they also might cause serious ethical difficulties.

Persuasive design strategies

If you're not already familiar with the term, many persuasive technologies are based on tried-and-true sales strategies that take advantage of our cognitive biases and "nudge" us in the right direction. One example is the 1-Click button on Amazon, which enables us to buy an item quickly and easily. 

Another illustration of the use of scarcity as an incentive in sales is the little text that appears beneath the buy button and states that there is only one remaining item in stock. 

Persuasive design features can be found outside of e-commerce. For example, health applications frequently use persuasive design to motivate us. One good example of that design method is the smartwatch and the completion of its daily objectives tasks in terms of filling "the rings". A similar method, such as "your profile is 80% complete", is frequently applied in social networking to encourage you to complete your profile.

Persuasive design strategies frequently straddle the ethical line.

When does design become unethical?

It is not always unethical to pressure a user to take a particular activity. Ethics only comes into play when we purposefully mislead or defraud the user. For instance/example, the dishonesty kicks in if the small text behind the button states that there are only three products remaining in stock. Are there any upcoming new units? It is always difficult for me to think that Amazon will ever actually run out of stock. Is the limited stock claim even true, or do businesses say it when they have a warehouse full of goods? 

The idea is that encouraging a user to do a certain action is completely different from the traditional set of sales pressure approaches frequently used in e-commerce. Then again, these differ greatly from purposefully misleading or deceiving a person.

When it comes to ethics, persuasive design (isn't every design persuasive in some sense?) walks a very fine line. Can we act in the user's best interest when we trick them into changing their behavior? And is doing so morally right?

Placebo buttons

One example I would like to use is the “Close Door” button in elevators. 

Many close door buttons are ineffective. These capabilities are frequently disabled by building owners who worry about potential legal ramifications in the event that someone is hurt as a result of an elevator door closing. In essence, they are fictitious buttons that are designed to give the user a sense of control. A feeling of control lessens anxiety.

Another illustration of this phenomenon is the buttons on pedestrian walk signs. 

These buttons are frequently inactive and have no effect. These controls are referred to as placebo buttons. In the case of pedestrian walk signs, many of them were created prior to electronic traffic controls and signals, and thus they no longer work. Many workplace thermostats are placebo controls, meaning they are only there to give the impression of control; they do not actually allow temperature adjustment.

David McRaney wrote a great piece on placebo buttons in his book ”You are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself”, for those who may be interested. But the morality of such technologies is questionable. Is it OK to deceive people with placebo buttons, even when doing so serves their best interests? 

The placebo effect has long been a problem for the pharmaceutical business, and many of their randomized controlled trials suffer from it. Does it matter if the medication reduces your pain or depressive symptoms? (It might if the person selling it to you is making money off of it and is aware that it is snake oil.) Buttons used as placebos don't always belong in the same category. First off, they don't actually cause as much harm. And most of them don't make money (although one could argue that the placebo thermostat saves money).

Designers’ point of view

How comfortable are you as a designer using placebo buttons and other user-misleading techniques is the key question. 

In murky regions like these, it’s hard to clearly distinguish between right and wrong. However, this is not to imply that there aren't areas of UX where ethics may clearly distinguish between right and wrong.

When it is OK to deceive people or use persuasive design strategies? There doesn't seem to be a clear-cut rule we can follow, in my opinion. User fraud for financial benefit is generally not acceptable. Who decides what is in a person's best interest? Who is responsible for deceiving users in their own interests? Simple boundaries cannot be drawn.

You shouldn't always believe what you see

Things are not always what they appear, particularly in UX, where we frequently combine psychology, marketing strategies, and design to provide our users with the best experience possible. It is not anticipated that this blog will lead to any conclusions. 

But starting a conversation and thinking about these concerns at least makes us more conscious of design and ethics than we might have been before. It's time to approach design ethics more methodically. It is time to start documenting the problems and creating frameworks which will help us create ethical designs that would benefit the user. This will help us evaluate our design choices and eventually allow us to create our own set of design ethics.

Your take on the subject

They say knowledge has power only if you pass it on - we hope our blog post gave you valuable insight.

If you want to share your opinion or learn more about what our design team can do for your business, feel free to contact us. We'd love to hear what you have to say!