I was recently asked to serve on a Design Ethics panel by friends at A Small Studio in partnership with UC Davis. While it was a healthy 1.5-hour conversation leading to countless insights that inspired and educated the audience, I didn't get to speak to some of the specifics close to my heart.
Below is a more thorough recap of my high-level thinking around ethics in design.
What does ethics mean to you when it comes to design?
I really like the way and old friend Beth Dean frames it — she's an amazing design leader I had the pleasure of learning from when I was at Facebook - she taught me to look at Design Ethics as having strong Emotional Intelligence in our design process. She has a great line about how we don't stop being human when we go online, and we interact with software like it's human. That said, ethics in the context of design means creating a healthy relationship with customers where you're aware of their emotions, understand where they might make mistakes with the product, and even hypothesize more about your product's long-term impact.
If you were speaking to a designer early in their career, what is the most important aspect of ethics they should know?
Building empathy for your customers is paramount, and I would want you fully grok how research plays into that will serve you well for the rest of your career. Customers won't always use the products you design in the ways you expect. You can really only understand what's going on in your product when you become a research-guided designer.
Throughout your career, was there a key moment or experience when your design and ethics approach changed for the better?
Absolutely. For me, it was on the daily for the 4.5 years I was at Facebook. When you solve customer challenges at that scale — especially in the business space, where I led teams around highly sensitive customer challenges — you get to see your products' impact in near real-time. Understanding how much time or money was lost for customers was a huge lesson in becoming a more ethical designer.
It is common knowledge these days of the younger generation rising against ethical practices more than ever before. What educational trends are you seeing that industry leaders would be aware of to nurture this drive?
Close to home here at Intuit, I see a great trend in pockets of the company where design crits and end-to-end reviews include more healthy conversations around design ethics. Things like "does that feel like an anti-pattern?" or "have you tried making the verbiage more human" or "have you thought about including education and guidance around this once they've completed the flow?" I also like how some design system teams worldwide are creating design ethics playbooks with checklists of things to do and questions to ask as they brainstorm and kick off projects to ensure emotional intelligence is heightened right at the get-go.
What is your biggest challenge right now in regards to practicing ethical design?
Again… I'm faced with bringing stronger, ethical practices into the company and making sure it's up there with accessibility in terms of how we operate. I also have the challenge of scaling it to touch all of our products and become a shared knowledge base that grows with more misuse cases.
We all spend most of our time in our work. When things that are deemed unethical come to your attention, how can we respond to make a meaningful impact as a designer or design leader?
I like this question because it gets at what I see many designers doing wrong - they go into a silo and pour their heart and soul into trying to solve it alone. The best thing leaders can do is create a mechanism for designers to share the ethical issue more broadly and allow a more diverse set of voices to inform the path forward.
How can we make sure ethics is not a static practice within our organizations but instead constantly evolving and growing with the organization's complexities?
My guidance is to understand the existing frameworks and venues at your company and leverage them to start having design ethics conversations. Creating new venues like slack channels or email newsletters to try and spread the word isn't as effective as you hoped. Still, if you take advantage of what's already working and force conversations there, you get the audience and engagement for free.
If you're in a larger company setting, get to know your Design Ops or Design Program Manager tribe and work with them to make Design Ethics best practices and frameworks become a part of their workflows. Doing this could ensure static artifacts stay visible and accessible as you hire new folks or kick off new projects.