Ethics in UX Design - 3 Key Principles 2

Ethics in UX Design – 3 Key Principles


Whether it’s in UX design, another industry, or simply how we behave day-to-day, we all like to think that we are ethical. But, while most of us know that ethical = good and unethical = bad, how many of us know what ethics are and how they can impact UX Design? 

Ethics are a set of moral principles; which people use to navigate what is right and what is wrong. 

Do you think you act ethically? People generally want to do what is morally right; however, numerous studies, including ‘The Ethical Mirage’, suggest that people often overestimate their ability to behave ethically (find more about this here). Therefore, when it comes to deciding whether we are ethical or not or ensuring we are acting ethically, we shouldn’t rely on our viewpoint alone due to the likelihood of bias. This is why it is important to have a process that allows you to consider ethics when designing rather than relying on your natural perception.

So what are ethics in the context of design? 

Design ethics are the consideration of the rights, well-being, and dignity of the people who use and interact with a design. Design ethics goes beyond aesthetics; they ask you to delve deeper into the user experience. They ask you to consider what the end product/service is doing and determine any potentially harmful impact on end users. 

UX designers can influence the people who use the products or services they design. From what people see on social media to news reports and even food packaging, the information our users encounter throughout the day can affect their thoughts and feelings. This is why making ethical design decisions in the UX design process is crucial. 

Guiding Principles

Why principles? They can help designers to assess whether they’re designing in an ethical way. They can also help multiple designers within the same organisation to be aligned when discussing and critiquing work from an ethical perspective.

I recommend using a small set of ethical principles (3-5) to apply to your design practice – this helps you to keep focused and is more time efficient. Nevertheless, whether you use these principles exactly, tweak them or add others, remember to consider them in all stages of design – from empathising, defining, and ideating to prototyping and testing.

  • Transparency

Be transparent and honest so people can make informed decisions.

Examples of questions to consider:
1. Is the purpose of the design clear and specific?
2. Does the design mislead users? (Consider interface elements such as action buttons and links as well as written/spoken information).
3. Does the design tell users exactly what data is collected and why it is collected? 

  • Respect

Respect people’s values, limits, and overall digital well-being.

Examples of questions to consider:
1. Does the design respect human rights? (Consider privacy, freedom of thought, belief, and religion)
2. Does the design address sensitive topics? If so, has this been approached with care?
3. Does the design respect people’s time and attention? Does it encourage unhealthy digital habits?

  • Responsibility

Act to protect the planet and people’s current and future interests.

Examples of questions to consider:
1. What are the short- and long-term societal, environmental, and economic impacts of this design?
2. Does the design have the potential to cause harm to anyone?
3. Does the design exclude or marginalise anyone? (Consider cultures, identities, and disabilities)

Final Considerations

Ethical design isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ 

The nature of work across industries and within individual companies can be dynamic and diverse, so remember to approach these guidelines flexibly rather than following them exactly.

How to deal with mistakes

Ethical design isn’t about being the perfect ethical citizen. Firstly, that most likely does not exist, and secondly, making mistakes is part of being human. Dr Dolly Chugh points out how letting go of the idea of ‘perfect ethicality’ can help us reflect and learn from our mistakes and past behaviours. Nevertheless, using these principles as a starting point for your design ethics practice could help to mitigate mistakes before they happen.

Practice empathy

Where possible, research is a great way to understand the people we are designing for. But we are not always able to come face-to-face with the people interacting with end-products throughout the design process. Nevertheless, it is imperative to remember that our ‘users’ are people, and they have thoughts and feelings.

Useful Resources

Design Ethically Toolkit

Humane By Design – Guidance For Designing Ethically

Articles – Nielsen Norman Group

Article – Design Ethics – Can We Solve Social Problems With Design?

Podcast – Awkward Silences – Episode 103 – Ethical Design and Respectful UX Research

IDEO – Downloadable Book

Spotify Design’s Downloadable Ethics Assessment 

Design Ethically Framework

Ethics for Designers [with worksheets]

Milly Martin
Milly Martin
Articles: 3

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below and subscribe to our newsletter