What is ethical design and why does it matter?

Ever wondered what ethical design is and how to identify it? Read on to find out.


Akshayta Rao Pulugurtha

3 years ago | 3 min read

When I look back at my time in design school, I realize that I never had a class on ethical design practices. You would think they were educating future designers on how to be mindful about their work, but unfortunately, knowing Photoshop is a more preferred skill than having integrity.

This led me to conduct a poll on Instagram asking people to respond with a “Yes” or “No” to whether they are aware of what ethical design is. A whopping 85% of the respondents voted no. In the next story, I invited answers to the question – “If I ask you to design ethically, what does that mean?”

A few answers were about plagiarism & integrity, some were around manipulative design practices and I even got a “Is taking inspiration from something classified as plagiarism or unethical?” Naturally, I concluded that this is a grey area, which meant that the content for my next blog was fired up and ready to go.

Ethical design constitutes the processes of design that result in solutions that do good to society. Simply put, it means that when a designer looks at their solution, it should not:

1. Violate the rights of users or non-users, especially if non-users are marginalized communities.

2. Intentionally confuse or hurt the user as they use the product.

3. Force users to do things they wouldn’t normally choose to do.

4. Have undesirable long-term effects, even if it boosts the bottom line.

If you’re ever faced with the problem of identifying if a design is ethical or not, just ask yourself “Is this interaction with the product going to hurt me in any way, either now or in the long run?”

The answer could be as simple as “Yes, if I continue to scroll through Instagram’s bottomless feed, it will ruin my sleep schedule.” or “I didn’t really choose to play the next episode – it launched automatically after it gave me 5 seconds to consider my options.”

So, you have it right there – these aspects of the design are not ethical.

Sometimes though, the answers aren’t that easy. Consider how some platforms make users pay for ad-free experiences.

To the untrained eye, this seems like a fair offering. But when you think about it, it puts low-income groups (or non-users of the paid service) at risk because their data can be sold to the highest bidder. Is there a more inclusive approach to defining the monetization strategy?

This business conundrum brings us to the original concern of why ethical design practices have been regarded as the outcasts of the design community for this long.

Design is, by definition, user centric. A few years ago, user-centered design was replaced with human-centered design and the creative community all over the world rejoiced – but it didn’t effectively change anything about our process.

We continued to champion the end user because, for years, we were told that getting the user’s attention, keeping them engaged and ensuring that they return are all markings of a great design. It was only when businesses started to use nefarious techniques to achieve these goals that we realized how design has been used for evil.

Luckily for us, over the last few years, the very individuals who set up these dangerous solutions have come to realize the errors of their ways.

Today, the conversation should, and does to some extent, revolve around not just user-centricity, but society at large.

An ethical design not only focuses on present user behavior but is mindful of what habits it can cultivate and the long-term impacts of its existence. Moreover, it considers the influence that it has on individuals that do NOT use the solution.

For example, if Uber were to reimagine its system using the ethical design model, it would not only look to maximize benefits for riders and drivers, but also consider the impact of its operations on existing local transport vendors. Think of all the protests the company could have avoided had they been more inclusive in their approach.

This is surely easier said than done, which is why the need for such thinkers has never been more powerful. The good news in that a lot of companies have identified avenues to improve consumer habits through minor design changes.

Case in point being Microsoft Word that prompts users to revise their language when the system identifies racially biased or potentially triggering verbiage - a great example of how non-users benefit from an ethically designed solution.

It is decisions like these that will help us shape the future responsibly, and we sure as hell need a lot more of them.

Until then, I guess I’d better brush up on my Photoshop skills.

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Created by

Akshayta Rao Pulugurtha

MBA, Indian School of Business | B.Des, Symbiosis Institute of Design | A design enthusiast aiming to educate the world on human-centered design -







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