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Article: The Ethical Design Principals: Comprehensive Guide

The Ethical Design Principals: Comprehensive Guide

We shared some essential guides about ethical design principles and how designers should apply these rules in this modern digital era. Learn more!

With the increasing role of digital technology and the function of digital marketing, ethical design principles must come to the surface. It's related to the idea that marketing should be honest and ethical. A lot of people have probably heard about it, but they don't really understand what it is.

It's crucial that designers understand the impact they have done on their designs. Designers should also know the proper steps to create products (or services) that aren't only good for the users but also good for the societies. Of course, it should be good for business too, but how it affects the entire ecosystem (the users, the society, and the environment) is more important.


Ethical Design Concepts

The idea is about ripple effects, how something you do (big or small) can bring effect to people around you and others. In ethical design principles, it's about designing impressive and functional products that go with your belief, business principles, and morals. When you create something, it will have a real effect on people – and it's the effect that will create ripples. Whether you make a product, a marketing campaign, or a website, those things matter. They HAVE a real impact and effect on their surroundings.

When we are talking about ethics, it's usually related to politics, society, and culture. If you are the designer responsible for the products or any effort related to them, you should take the responsibility. Most designers must be responsible for their ethical efforts. Unfortunately, such responsible is passed off – and it happens quite a lot. What is considered ethical is something that is considered a status quo – and politics, society, and culture shift its concept. How do designers keep their ethical design and concept as the status quo changes and shifts?


Ethical Design Principles

The principles are mostly about high respect for human rights, including experience and effort. Many of those principles are inspired by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Laura Kalbag and Aral Balkan created a pyramid called 'The Ethical Hierarchy of Needs' to illustrate ethical design core. Through the pyramid, they show that each top layer would rest on the layer beneath. Every layer also depends on each one beneath so that the design remains ethical.

If you have to lay the pyramid from the bottom up, it would be about:

  • Human Rights. As the most bottom layer, it is about private, interoperable, decentralized, sustainable, open, accessible, and open nature.
  • Human Efforts. On top of the Human Rights layer, it is about efforts that are reliable, convenient, and functional.
  • Human Experience. This is the most top layer, which is about a delightful experience.
  • Respect. This is the highest level of the pyramid, where ethical design principles are all about respect to all aspects of life.


Fulfilling Needs and Basic Principles Usability

Not many people think seriously about usability – while in reality, it must be included as the basic requirement. When you create something, you want it to be functional and handy, right? When a product doesn't have any function at all, it would be viewed as a design failure. Moreover, the design itself should assist users in meeting their needs, accomplish their purpose, and be easy to use. If it is even fun to use, then it would add another plus factor.

According to Jakob Nielsen (from Nielsen Norman Group), there are five components related to usability.

  • Learnability. Can first-time users use it? How easy or convenient is it for them?
  • Efficiency. Does it help users perform tasks? How fast can they operate it and be used to it?
  • Memorability. What makes users return to use it again? What experience have they encountered?
  • Satisfaction. How fun or pleasant is it to use it?
  • Errors. Do users make errors while using it? How many of them? How severe are they?

Designers should also bear in mind that they have moral responsibility and obligation when creating products. Not only must those products be safe, but they must also be intuitive too. Here is an example of fail usability: Samsung Galaxy Note 7 had an issue when the product caught fire quite easily and spontaneously. Here is an example of successful usability: Walgreens created an app sending reminders to their customers when they have to refill things, such as vitamins. When they have to refill those things, they can order everything through the app as well. Designs with (seemingly simple adjustments and small details) can actually improve user experience in such a positive impact.



With the increasing use and inclusion of digital technology, privacy issue becomes something that must be addressed seriously. Yes, we live in the modern era where technology makes it convenient and helpful for us to enjoy everything. However, we can't disregard the fact that Facebook can read private messages, Google can monitor the clicks, and Alexa can listen to our conversation.

That's why ethical design principles should include privacy, and users should be able to agree or disagree to such a matter. They should have a saying in this. The best practice is about developing designs that will collect personal info ONLY if the users agree on it and if within users' best interest.

One of the great examples is Signal. It is an app that will protect and secure messenger and phone. It's created with the purpose of protecting the privacy of the users. When you register, it only asks for your phone number – and not anything else. More customers are more interested in brands or products that can respect their privacy, considering that there is an increasing concern (as well as awareness) about privacy. It is the result of data-driven and targeted advertising businesses.



Many manufacturers or designers make this common mistake when they create a product. Instead of incorporating accessibility within the development process, they do it AFTER the whole thing has been set up. So, instead of making accessibility a part of the process, they do it as the end process.

You see, when products are created, they are generally built and designed for the so-called targeted customers. However, there are always those who are (unintentionally) being left out. In this case, these people are often the ones with disabilities. You can see the obvious example around us. Most website designs, for instance, aren't optimized or targeted for those with vision impairment. According to WHO, there are around at least a billion people who are visually impaired or blind.

Although technology has made it possible for those with vision impairment to access (and operate) the internet, web designs often lack this accessibility. Some of the most common issues encountered by these people include direct images (without the alternative text), buttons without (accessible) description, or areas that can't be accessed through a screen reader. If you can include accessible design to your creation, trust me: it would benefit everyone – and make them happy.


Users Involvement

When we are talking about ethical design principles, the industry tends to forget that it is the users that matter. Products are created for them, and yet they are often excluded from the overall process. The industry needs to include them in the design creation process, but they also need to address ethical design matters related to those users.

As a designer, we need to think that ethical design principles should be a part of the users' life. If the designs can create a positive experience and they can impact the surroundings in such a positive manner, then it would be ideal. This is one of the reasons why users should be included in design decisions and processing. After all, the industry wants to understand their needs and ideas, right?

That's why early target customer involvement is required, and continuous processing (to understand the issues and the proper solutions) needs to be enforced. All of these things would help understand the users' characteristics, as well as their requirements of the items. The entire process will help with usability too. It is advisable to have small groups for user testing. It shows where the flaws are, helping designers revise their designs. Users' involvement is especially important for design testing – which can take place again and again. The whole thing is related to ethical design thinking and how it is supposed to affect users in the most positive manner.


Persuasion and Transparency

If a business pays attention to ethical aspects seriously, it should know that transparency is crucial. Transparency provides users with information so they can make informed choices. This is usually the case with membership issues – and how users get the information about the proper membership for them. Oftentimes, users are left out about this membership they can get and what kinds of benefits they can reap from it. For instance, some e-commerce offers free shipping for users during the trial period. However, once the (free) trial period runs out, it will charge users for their annual membership full cost automatically. Users can avoid such a thing only if they cancel it manually. Oftentimes, there isn't any notification or warning about the trial period runs out or when they are about to charge users. Does it sound ethical to you? You answer it.



Designers should realize that when they create a service or tool, they create something that will be a part of the users' world. Their creation would be a small part of users' lives, not the entire universe of the users. Users should be able to enjoy 'breaks'. They should be able to take a break from whatever products being offered to them. In short, the products should be available and ready when users need them, but they should be out of users' way when they don't.

Unfortunately, most industries today focus more on profits by making products that are 'addictive'. For instance, a particular social media platform has been using the so-called social-validation feedback loop so they can exploit human behavior. Users are being addicted to comments and likes, so they would post again and again. Users are also encouraged to check for new notifications constantly. This is only a small example of 'addictive' products created around us. Social media, for a starter, is addictive because you are compelled to be back again – no matter where you are, what time it is, or what you do. With particular video platform, for instance, users are given complete freedom to binge-watch – especially since the platforms provide autoplay features.



With the increasing issue of the environment and the damages done by humanity, sustainability has become a crucial topic in ethical design principles. Designers should think about the effects of their products on the environment, climate, and resources. One of the most popular ethical trends is to implement circular design within a closed-loop (design) strategy. In this way, resources aren't thrown away – they would be repurposed continuously.

It's a good thing that many brands have understood the importance of recycling or reusing. They create products that would be cycled in various forms continuously, along with recycling and reusing concepts so less waste would be the outcome. PlasticRoad, for instance, recycles plastic waste to (modular) road-building blocks. AMP Robotics has this program where they recycle robots, and they have improved it so the operation would be more effective. 57st creates and produces modular furniture.


Making Ethical Design

So, how do you incorporate ethical design principles? How can you create a more ethical design solution? The simplest way to do so is to start it from the very beginning. Designers should have a clear intention, purpose, and understanding of what is expected from them, including what kind of ethical practices and elements they include within their creation.

Instead of adding accessible elements or privacy notification by the end of the process, why not starting off with clear ethical intention from the beginning? Designers need to connect the company's values and mission to their designs. They should already have thought about function, purpose, mission, and features as they design the products – paying attention to the ethical aspects. By doing these, designers present a good opportunity to challenge the company or client – to really do what they have promised.


Track Assumptions

Most designers aren't connected directly to the users – and this is the core issue in ethical design principles. Because of this, designers make assumptions about the products' functions and roles. Since designers don't really know how their products are going to be used or whether their products are functional or not, such a situation can lead to potential consequences and risks for everyone – the society, company, and users themselves. That's why keeping track would be helpful. When designers are able to track each assumption they make for each product, they will understand not only their products better but also their users. They will remember the test, the usage, and the adaptations.


Dark Reality Session

Designers should ask themselves difficult questions related to their products' possible risks, potential consequences, and weaknesses. This stage is known as the Dark Reality session – a practice done by Socrates. This is a technique focusing on stress testing an idea or concept with difficult and challenging questions.

There are many handy tools to test the following questions, to see whether the designs are ethical. In some cases, you can even use Tech Tarot Cards to answer these questions:

  • What will happen in the event the user base is in the millions?
  • How long would your products' lifespan be?
  • How would the products affect the society, environment, and the economy? Would it be short or long-term?
  • Who can benefit from the design? Who would be excluded? Who would lose?
  • Could the designs be misused? In what way?

These questions will help designed identify the concept's flaws – so they can consider it. They can produce their own lists of assumptions and questions. These assumptions and weaknesses areas would be tested with the (potential) users so designers can come up with products adjusted to users' needs.


The Predicaments

Ethical design principles are often ignored and overlooked. There are many reasons for it: not having enough budgets, lack of time, it is too complex, it is unpleasant, it can deliver inconvenient experience, and so much more. However, if designers are willing to start early with the right intentions and expectations, they can actually reduce these concerns. They may not be able to change the situation overnight, but they can take small steps for each opportunity presented to them.

Another complicated matter about ethical design issues is to decide who would be responsible for the ethical products. Who will determine it? Who will ensure it? Is it the designers, the users, the governments, the company, or the boss? In reality, everyone is responsible – especially the designers. They should be able to say, "Wait, let's check," and really make sure that products have been ethically designed and produced. However, it doesn't mean that designers are SOLELY responsible for ethical products. After all, there are different parties involved in the creation, manufacturing, and use of the products. It is only logical if everyone is held responsible for the ethical designs.



When it comes to ethical designs, it is everyone's responsibility to humankind, society, the environment, and the users themselves. Everyone should make a pledge and also commitment concerning their moral values and the right ethical design principles, especially for future reference. If you have any comments regarding this topic, feel free to write in the section below! Cheers!

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