Hijacked Minds? Towards ethically responsible UX Design
The user design of most digital products consciously aims at using human psychology to increase attention, retention time and interaction.
The infrastructure of our personal lives is highly influenced by the tools and tricks of the User Experience Design World: often guided by commercial interests and largely inaccessible for the average user. We are convinced: it does not have to be this way! In this blog, we tell the story of how we arrived at this conclusion and how our EX Design Label aims to offer a practical solution for ethically responsible UX Design.
If you are like us, you began trading your data in exchange for various services without really knowing it was happening. In return, these digital tools were finding ways to keep our attention for more data extraction and profit. Now that we know it is happening, we are daunted by the task of excavating our own digital footprints (we have yet to undertake this task) and truly understanding what happens when we use digital interfaces. Which ‘tricks’ do social media platforms employ to keep our focus for longer? Can our retweet contribute to extremist polarizations? The act is small, the collective impact large.
While we have enjoyed the perks of different platforms that allow us to stay connected with loved ones or offer convenient ways of dealing with daily errands, a negative feeling has developed: vast amounts of our own data and our psychological susceptibilities have been used against us by the digital services. Data and our psychology are used to target us with marketing at unprecedented levels, increase our addiction, and sell our information to data brokers. We are datafied into “data assemblages” (Lupen 2015), subject to “surveillance capitalism” (Zuboff 2019), have attention extracted from us (Williams 2018) and are behaviorally steered by big data and AI-outputs.
Does it really need to be like this?
At ethix we came to realize that the ethics of UX design or “ethical design (EX)” is critical for the future of digital product and service development because they impact our ability to live the lives we believe we should live, lives that are meaningful to us as individuals and collectively. So, we started a project to see what contribution we might make and have happily found ourselves in good company around the world.(1)
Ethical design is not a negligible topic and the time for its development is ripe.
At the core, we are concerned with values that can guide us in living a good, or at least better, life. These include concepts like autonomy (being able to make one’s own decisions as long as you don’t impede on others) or solidarity (the right to belong to a group and exchange mutual benefits).
The major question we were faced with was: which values are put at stake by the patterns we have described above? For example, many algorithmic applications violate the value of “non-discrimination”. Or “well-being” suffers when our interpersonal relationships are misused and bent out of shape online.
While searching for design features that can be linked to these kinds of value infringements, we came across the concept of dark patterns. So, we dug deeper.
Starting with the basics: Dark patterns and beyond
We started with a basic question: can we check products for dark patterns to ensure ethical design? Indeed, dark patterns (Mathur et al. 2019) are aptly named for their ability to trick and manipulate us into doing things we didn’t really want to be doing – items being sneaked into shopping carts, more data than we intended being shared, and spending an exorbitant amount of time on platforms that don’t really make us feel happy.
To better understand dark patterns and assess their ethical impact, we teamed up with Dr. Linda Di Geronimo from the University of Zürich who specialized on dark patterns in her PhD research, to understand the prevalence of these design tricks better. It turns out many users really don’t recognize dark patterns (or certain types of them) though they are prevalent and often even appear in hybrid forms.
From our ethical perspective, we wondered if we could just audit user interfaces for dark patterns and be done with it? Well, yes and no.
Expanding the categories
Dark patterns are certainly part of ethical design and can be audited in their own right. But with a bit more research, it became clear that they did not cover all the issues. Ethical design must dive into the murky waters of ethical pursuits that go deeper than easily identifiable yes/no questions (e.g., are buttons colored to manipulate choice or not). After meeting with the experienced UX designers Andreas Wolters and Yanira Gonzales, it quickly became clear that an audit of the final product was insufficient for evaluating ethical design: the design process cannot be ignored (In fact, I was faced with the reality of being shooed out of the designers’ offices, check-list in hand). “Good design is when every decision during the design process is traceable and transparent” (thank you Andreas Wolters for the advice) and subsequently how those choices manifest in the product and interact with users.
Our label redesign
Enter our process and product evaluation EX ethical design certification. A combination of protocoled workshops and a check-list by which beta or final version digital interfaces are evaluated. It makes sure that intentions and responsible choices are being made along the way and thus helps us avoid the fig-leaf promise trap (a.k.a. ethics washing). That way, we work with the logic of design, not against it.
ethix label goals
The complete labelling process covers different parameters of ethical design processes and a product evaluation at the end. The four workshops, targeted at design teams, encourage critically thinking about the values embedded in the design of a product. They result in concrete strategies to address ethical risks. The product evaluation uses current evidence to check features and functions for ethical “red flags.” The product is then awarded an ethical performance score which indicates the product’s count on a number of ethical indicators.
In the world of ethics, it will be impossible to label a product as “ethical” or “unethical.” But indicators can be documented to state whether a product is more likely to have ethical risks or not. This way, consumers can make better decisions regarding their own digital product use. By providing the EX User Design Label, we at ethix hope to offer a valuable contribution to pushing back against the negative implications of design, and making the inaccessible world of UX/IX design accessible at the consumer end.
(1) The Center for Human Technology in Silicon Valley promotes design that helps our “human sensitivities” flourish. The Omidyar Network recently published their Ethical Explorer Pack to support designers and developers with ethical reflections during development of new applications. In Sweden, Ind.ie has developed an Ethical Design Manifesto. Cathy O'Neil and co have developed an algorithmic audit and contextualized ethical matrices. Also, a Seattle-based company of “digital optimists,” Substantial, offers product design that incorporates empathy for human needs from the start.
Lupen, Deborah. 2015. Data assemblages, sentient schools and digitized health and physical education (response to Gard). Sport, Education and Society. 20(1): 122-132.
Mathur, Arunesh, Acar, Gunes, Friedman, Michel J., Lucherini, Elena, Mayer, Jonathan, Chetty, Marshini and Arvind Narayana. 2019. “Dark Patters at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11k Shopping Websites. ACM Human Computer Interaction 3(CSCW).
Williams, James. 2018. Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and resistance in the Attention Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Zuboff, Shoshana. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: PublicAffairs.