Technology is more than an abstract concept associated with advanced tools and systems used by businesses and end-users for convenience and automation of complex tasks. It also shapes the way societies and people interact, learn, evolve, and develop, both within their own lives and in their relationships with others. While the notion of what technology is, and how it interacts and co-influences society has changed dramatically in the past few decades, evidence of this synergy can be found since humans started developing simple tools. In modern society, technology has tremendously altered the ways in which we interact with one another on a daily basis.
Human interaction can be defined as any action that is taken between two humans, for better or for worse. Sociology is the study of human interactions and relationships, with relation to societies and cultures. Social relations, although basic to human nature, health and well-being, have become increasingly complicated as a result of changing population demography and technology. In the past half-century, technology has had an emerging influence on how people maintain contact, especially the changing ways people can use technology to increase, decrease, maintain, or avoid social relations, with both positive and negative impacts on well-being. Additionally, technological developments are fundamentally changing the ways in which we experience social relations. On the other hand, we have to account for the newly developing characteristics of our society. These include changes in the demography of the family and changes in migration patterns.
This has created a growing need for discussion around the ethics of software, as well as the philosophical and cultural aspects of technology. But it doesn't look like the industry is owning this social responsibility. There’s a tendency to ignore the consequences of the products we make, to see technology and software as something that is justified by itself. A good indication of the low priority that is being given to ethics is reflected in how computer science or software development studies are built. You almost never see courses in philosophy, ethics, or cultural studies as a required part of the curriculum. We’re creating generations of influencing professionals who are not trained to see the broader picture and consider the implications of what they do. It’s all about KPIs; it’s never about whether we are doing good or not.
A very comprehensive definition of ethical design can be found at Encyclopedia.com:
In other words, ethical design is about how we collaborate, how we practice our work, and what we create. There’s never a black-and-white answer for whether what we create is “good or bad”, yet there are a number of areas to focus on when considering ethics.
This is definitely the most discussed topic of all, which has drawn the most publicity recently having had numerous cases and scandals recently regarding personal data misuse and abuse. Corporations have access to an abundance of personal information about consumers, and as designers, we have the privilege—and responsibility—of using this information to shape products and services. We have to consider how much information is strictly necessary and how much people are willing to give up in exchange for services. Most importantly though, we have to examine how can we make people aware of the potential risks without involving them and making information easily accessible. This brings us to the next areas of focus.
Inclusive design has become a standard item in the requirement list of many designers and companies. benefits all, as it attempts to cover as many needs and capabilities as possible. Yet for each project, there are still a lot of tricky questions to answer. Who benefits from our solutions and who is left out?
Overlapping largely with privacy, this focus area is about how we deal with our users and what we do with the data that we collect from them. IDEO has recently published The Little Book of Design Research Ethics, which provides a comprehensive overview of the core principles and guidelines we should follow when conducting design research.
Ethics related to persuasion is about to what extent we may influence the behavior and thoughts of our users. It doesn’t take much to cross the line in favor of conversion optimization for example.
The current digital landscape is addictive, distracting, and competing for attention. Technology can communicate its message by seeking your endless attention. Designing for focus is about responsibly handling people’s most valuable resource: time. The challenge is to limit everything that disrupts the users’ attention and create tranquility. The Center for Humane Technology has started a useful list of resources for this purpose.
The impacts that digital technology has on society, including topics such as relationships, mental health, and democracy. Designers who are mindful of society consider the impact of their work on the global economy, communities, politics, and health.
We need to find ways to make ethics, not an afterthought, not something to be considered separately, but rather something that’s so ingrained in our process that not doing it means not doing design at all. The only way to overcome the “inconvenience” of acting ethically is to practice daily ethical design: ethics structurally integrated into our daily work, processes, and tools as designers. By applying ethics daily and structurally in our design process, we’ll be able to identify and neutralize in a very early stage the potential for mistakes and misuse. We’ll increase the quality of our design and our practices simply because we’ll think things through more thoroughly, in a more conscious and structured manner. But perhaps most important is that we’ll establish anew standard for design. A standard that we can sell to our clients as the way design should be done, with ethical design processes and deliverables already included. A standard that can be taught to design students so that the newest generation of designers doesn’t know any better than to apply ethics, always.
When we talk about ethics, we mostly ask questions. We need to talk about values, potential consequences, society, how we see ourselves; we need to consider multiple world views and we may not have a finite solution. It’s comfortable to try and avoid these questions and focus on the things we can actually solve. Additionally, innovation is a struggle, and mainly a financial one. When weighting in ethics, the optimal financial solution might not always be in line with the most ethical choice, and that's when things become even more complicated. Clearly, this article was not written to give answers or act as an ethical guide for developers, innovators, and such, but rather to raise questions and stress the importance of issues that shape our lives and society. We see the world as a set of problems that we can solve systematically and creatively if only we try hard enough. However, merely having the intention to do good is not enough. Our mindset comes with the pitfall of missing and dismissing potential disastrous consequences, especially under the pressure of daily constraints. That’s why we need to regularly, systematically take a step back and consider the future impact of our work.