Design and ethics: At what point is it ok for us to make decisions for our users?

Image: Cyril Foiret

As designers, we make decisions and create solutions that greatly impact how people live their lives and behave.

We often talk about what is morally correct, what is ethically correct, but we use these words interchangeably without actually knowing the difference. Morality focuses on an absolute right and wrong, it describes what it is forbidden or permitted for us to do, which depends on the era or social context. Ethics on the other hand is the fundamental thought of what it means to act well, which means that ethics does not say what is right or wrong, rather it shows you the road you should take to live better. there are three main theories to explain an ethical act:

  1. Virtue ethics, says that if a man has virtuous characteristics such as honesty, wisdom, or courage, you will have good intentions which will make you act in an ethical way.
  2. Deontology focuses on the conduct that should be followed for an action to be ethical, independent of its consequences, like doctors that treat patients, no matter who they are.
  3. Consequentialism determines whether an act is ethical by evaluating its consequences, it judges actions based on observable results, rather than the intention of the actor, which is highly difficult to prove.

( For more on ethics and design: http://ethicsfordesign.com/fr/menu)

Ethics can be seen as a process that projects us to the future that is constantly changing and evolving and tells us where we want to go or what we want the world to be, and moral could be seen as a specific set of rules in a specific context that is used by a specific group of people. If we think about design, Ethics could be seen as our preferred future and morale as our guiding process.

So having this in mind, how could we create a guiding process that takes into account the three views of ethics to know when is it a good idea to make a decision for our users and when it is not? In which way will we need to question what are we designing?

I found that Alain Findeli's view about making the world habitable for human beings might serve as an excellent base to move forward. As designers, we can increase or maintain habitability for people, and he interprets this verb in four different levels. Firstly the material level, which refers to a material habitat, a home with sheltered conditions, then there is a second level as inhabitability from a vital perspective, which refers more to being healthy in our own bodies, and thirdly the psychosocial in habitability which refers to cohabitation with others, and lasts the spiritual or cultural in habitability, which is our ability to create a cultural world where it is pleasant to live and develop. In all of these three cases, what we design connects users, helps people acquire material things, or self improve by the means of processes.

Throughout these processes, we balance two things: The user's choice, and complexity, where we designers make choices to try and simplify such processes to help the user get where he wants to get, and here is where the Paradox of choice comes in. The most important thing to understand is that users have an end goal, like buy a house, get healthy, enjoy a vacation, etc. Everything in between the person and the end goal is just time and energy wasted on doing something the user does not want to do.

A great example of good choices made by designers to help users reach their end goal is #BBVA Home Search:

  1. It showed users which homes are underpriced or overpriced compared to their rich databases.
  2. When you clicked to see the home details it showed all the basic data of the property plus all the places of interest that were near it plus, if the user desired, it could calculate accurate distances from their children's school or parents' home.
  3. They aggregated all the properties from all the different home offering platforms and were clear by showing which home was posted on which website.
  4. The designers included a graph to show how the price of the property fluctuated over time because, in the end, users are not only buying property but investing as well.
  5. All the bureaucracy involved was digitalized to the max, and users were accompanied by an expert each step of the way.

Bad examples, in my experience, usually involve hiding useful information (costs or other choices that the user might have picked instead of the companies desired selling a product), click bate, unclear default choices, unclear information, or the use of specific jargon that the user might not understand (everyone knows nobody reads apple's privacy terms and conditions for example), and lastly getting a user into a situation, usually a subscription, and making it difficult for them to unsubscribe or keep track of the expiration date of their free subscription (cof cof Linkedin premium).

To avoid all of these dark patterns, I always think of a few simple rules: Did I put forward all the fundamental information variables the user needs to know to make their choice? Is this information clearly written and showed in a coherent way? Is the information shown in the right step/context of the flow?

As designers, we need to use our place in wherever we are working to understand and research human relationship to be able to erase frictions and enrich them, to help people make THEIR best choice possible, no matter who they are or what their definition of the best choice is.

Senior Strategic designer, passionate about design and creativity applied to Service Design, UX and Strategy. (Paris/Argentina)

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