Artificial Conversations: Ethical Design

| Shannon E. Thomas

This week we discussed design ethics as presented by

Conversations around design ethics are hardly new, and best practices abound for how to respectfully engage in design for humans of diverse origin, context, and need. These best practices often look at design more as a process than an outcome, and this is where the Ethical Design pyramid presented by Aral and Laura differs. It suggests that ethical design should be built on a platform of ethical technologies – starting with a foundation that embraces human rights, building on that foundation with a respect for human effort, and finishing with an effort to create an appropriate (or delightful) human experience.

Why? and How? are the obvious next questions – questions left unanswered by the Ethical Design Manifesto. Do decentralization and openness really make a design ethical? There was a universal feeling of wanting to see more examples of how the manifesto might be applied to make better decisions.

With this, we reflected on our own experiences, both personally and as a company, to evolve our own thinking around the ethics of design.

Know where your empathy is coming from.

Hans brought up that there are many ways to define “us” and “them”. While often simplified to a culture, a region, or a demographic, users could be as specific as “bankers at ABN AMRO in Amsterdam” or as generic as “Expats”.

Natalia brought up how dangerous it is to design as an outsider. From an outside perspective, Mexican design might seem full of pink and gradients. But designing for México means understanding that tastes vary based on class, education, etc. This might mean narrowing focus to better understand a specific user type, or it may mean broadening your perspective to understand the nuance of a culture.

Seek the expertise you need.

Having the right amount of relevant perspectives is important when designing. Kamila mentioned that having a target group design for themselves is likely to fail, as not all target groups will have the right expertise to design a product.

And of course, not all designers have the expertise in a specific field or context to create relevant experiences. Hans brought up an Artificial client – Philips Male Grooming. As a company of women, we rely heavily on research and on Hans’s personal experiences to design experiences appropriate to the men using those products.

Kamila followed up with an obvious example – women’s toilets. Even with the amount of available feedback, women’s restrooms continue to be designed with the same inadequate requirements as men’s.

Manjari brought up Google Messaging in India, and how their design process ensured a deeper-than-research understanding of the context. She brought up how valuable partnerships can be for smaller agencies when approaching unfamiliar contexts.

Knowing a thing isn’t as important as understanding a thing, and as designers, it’s important to know the difference…as well as our own limitations.

Design isn’t finished when a product ships.

Kamila brought up a project where we were working to design a connected hospital experience. Throughout the project, the team was working with hospitals to better understand what was happening in the operating room. For us, this meant a few surprising (but necessary) changes in requirements.

I mentioned how every hospital was likely to be slightly different, and how designing to accommodate human effort would mean designing for each specific context.

Natalia brought up how important testing is so that design can refine a product alongside the input of actual users.

Manjari, again struggling with the specificity around design’s responsibilities, mentioned that design would be stronger as a discipline if we insisted that it continue beyond the delivery of the design itself. We have a responsibility for the things we put into the world, and we shouldn’t wipe our hands clean once we’ve captured our intentions via documentation.

This point is an important one to the ethics of design, mostly because it means disrupting our usual way of working. Creating a design is not enough. Shipping a design is not enough. As designers, we need to follow through to see how our intentions (which are at best design hypotheses) are used, misused, and appropriated by users.

Did this conversation change anything for The Artificial? We are opinionated and have strong points of view about how to ethically approach design, but we are also young, and so many of those views remain untested. As an agency, we will continue to seek work and to structure projects in ways that prioritize the user’s relationship to the things we design. And we will continue to iterate on our process so that we can be more conscientious in our approach, more thorough in our execution, and more ethical as an agency.