Good Design Can Be Taught: Ethical Design Must Be Chosen

Michael Sprauve
/
August 24, 2021
Michael Sprauve
/
President
5 Min Read Time
/
August 24, 2021
As the power that designers, programmers, and engineers weld becomes more apparent in a lightning-paced world of AI, app, and algorithm development, it is hard not to notice design ethics lag woefully behind.


Good Design Can Be Taught: Ethical Design Must Be Chosen

Primum non nocere or "Do no harm" is a phrase most people recognize as the physician's creed.  It is an ethical baseline in medicine, a field where practitioners have the power of life and death in their hands regularly, if not every day.  In fields like design and technology, the relationship between actions and impact is not as direct or clear, although it is certainly coming into focus.  As the power that designers, programmers, and engineers weld becomes more apparent in a lightning-paced world of AI, app, and algorithm development, it is hard not to notice design ethics lag woefully behind.   Rather than the exception, it is the rule to forgo permission and ask forgiveness as long as you are first to market.  A dangerous trend in Silicon Valley (and beyond) the repercussions of which we will likely be dealing with for decades to come.  Take, for instance, so-called social apps perplexingly designed to reward and proliferate antisocial behavior and falsehoods. "Fake news" is not just a catchy quip--it is a battle cry in an all-out war on truth.  One with devastating consequences powerful enough to erode institutions and social norms across the globe.  Was this the intended impact of social apps?  Not likely.  But the proverbial genie is out of the bottle, and big tech has neither the will nor the ability to put it back in.  


This example is not siloed. There are scores of product, service, and design outcomes where ethics were either not considered or simply defied.  And, there is a pretty simple explanation why this is happening at such a large scale: profit.  From rideshare technology made to psychologically exploit workers to video games developed to be addictive by inciting a reward response in the prefrontal cortex--the ethical choice in design and technology often contradicts business sense. However, as we've seen, these poorly planned (sometimes ne'er sought) ethical design choices have far-reaching implications.  Whatsmore, we now have an entire generation of young technologists sitting on the precipice of an AI revolution with technology like autonomous weapons or self-driving cars just over the horizon.  These products and technologies, while exciting, very much have the potential for devastation.   As such, it is time for design ethics to catch up to Big Tech post haste. This begs the question--what exactly are “design ethics”?  To be fair, there are a lot of answers to that question.  However, a distilled version will suffice to give one clarity and even a few actionable items.


Ethical Design Aims to Help Not Hurt


Anything ethical is hard to define, but first of all, it is essential to realize that designers are innately responsible for the work they put out into the world. This puts the ethical obligation squarely on their shoulders.  Happily, designers, engineers, and programmers are already driven to make things better and solve problems.  A critical ethic for designers, therefore, is not much different than that of a doctor--"do no harm." It would be nice if the ethical conversation could end there, but reality is much messier. Steering clear of designing physically dangerous products is relatively straightforward--developing an inclusive product--not so much.  In other words, a product can be perfectly safe to use and still fail miserably in the ethics department if some segments of society can't use it.  Soap dispensers that don't recognize dark-skinned hands and therefore cannot dispense soap to people of color don't necessarily physically harm those users but do exclude them.  Alienation from society hurts, and so does the signal these failed designs send to those disaffected by them is-- you don't matter.  For something to be ethical, it must be equitable; without this, even innocuous technologies can have sinister societal repercussions.


Ethical Design Considers Impact Over Intention


The ethical burden for designers goes far beyond their best intentions.  It includes the lasting and somewhat unpredictable impact of what they create as well. Ignorantly producing work harms others as much as knowingly doing so and has the same negative consequences for the end-user.  Therefore fully considering the ramifications of a work is a separate but equally important ethic that designers, companies, and institutions alike must do.  This "pre-mortem" way of exploring how innovation can go wrong seems to be the step consistently skipped in modern design and understandably so:  it's expensive, it's difficult, and if done thoroughly, has the potential to pump the brakes on a project.  This is especially true for technology and AI.  However, making this step a consistent, lengthy, and integral part of the design process allows individuals and teams to understand, predict and even stave off potential harm or misuse.   Whatsmore, this is an opportunity for design teams to control the narrative around their product, to create the reality of their product by controlling the conversation and influencing perception.


Ethical Design Accepts and Plans For Failure


Finally, planning for failure is an activity any designer or design team must take part in to pursue a genuinely ethical product.  The fact of the matter is even the most benign objects have ethical shortcomings.   Planning around these inevitable failures is critical to being an ethical designer.  This means digging deep into the product's intended and unintended use while asking the hard questions.  Could it fail ethically, and how?  What can be done to design around these potential failures?  Can these ethical failures be mitigated and how?  If ethical shortcomings can't be designed around, should the product be made at all?  These are tough, ethical pressure points that sometimes involve trade-offs between two or more competing ideals and/or values. Often it means choosing the lesser of evils.  Always it is about being aware that what you are making will probably have ethical issues and then being purposeful about dampening that impact.

An excellent example of this is taking into account the potential environmental impact of many man-made objects. We live in a world of finite resources, and our industrious activities are demonstrably destroying our habitat.  At this point, one could argue products that are not sustainable at the very least have questionable ethics.  This doesn't mean the manufacturing of all products with a negative environmental impact should cease, but it certainly warrants a conversation and a shift towards modular or circular design whenever possible.

 

Ethical Design Requires Ethical People


There is no mandate for ethics in design. There are scant few design ethics courses available for any type of technology or traditional design, much less required ones. There are no governing bodies, licensures, ways to penalize or formally censure those who throw ethics aside to make a quick buck.   However, since their work will very likely outlive them, those who create are inevitably designing how they will be remembered.  Their work will be their voice after they are gone and have nothing left to say. This means a likely place for any company or designer to start to exam their ethical design standards is--what do I want my legacy to be?



 


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