A guide to everyday design ethics

4 min read
Margaret Kelsey
  •  Jul 21, 2017
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Do you know what your ethical lines are? Explore the dark side of design with Intuit’s Jonathan Shariat.

We hosted a DesignTalk with Jonathan Shariat on everyday ethical challenges designers face. Below is the full recording and an excerpt of the talk, edited for length and clarity. Enjoy!

Jonathan: I’m so excited to share a topic that’s really close to my heart—and one that I think is really important. Hopefully, by the end of this talk you’ll know some practical ways design ethics intersect with your work—and what to do about it.

First, let me share a bit about myself. I’ve been designing for around 10 years now, and I work at Intuit as the senior interaction designer.

So I was talking to my wife, who’s a nurse, and she was sharing this story with me from her teacher. They were arguing around the purpose of technology in the hospital setting. The story was that this young girl came into the hospital for cancer treatment. They gave her medicine that’s very toxic and requires a lot of hydration, but the nurses were so distracted by the software they were using that they failed to see that she needed this hydration.

A day later, she died.

Just hearing that story really bothered me, and I wanted to do something about it. So I started to look at the different ways in which bad design can really harm our lives.

“Bad design can cause physical and emotional harm.”

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I’m a designer, so I’m constantly thinking about metrics like conversion rates or time on task and things like that. So when I fail, the consequences don’t seem that big. But when I look at it in this light, I started to realize—wow—it is an important role design has to play. When design fails, it’s a big deal.Twitter Logo When we succeed it can be a big deal as well.

So what we’re going to cover today is physical harm, emotional harm, exclusion, and injustice—practical things that will impact your everyday work as a designer.

Physical harm

The first thing that pops into my mind is ergonomics—something designers don’t always think of. Our minds are in the screen, but really the design of our apps is constrained by the actual physical phone or computer it resides in.

There’s a graphic from A List Apart that maps out the ergonomic zones. So the red is something that’s hard or difficult to get to, sometimes even painful for some of us who’ve been using our phones too much, and then the green area is something that’s easy, like that swipe motion. The red and green areas end up not being very vertical or horizontal. Rather, it actually has this sort of radial motion to it. So as you design your apps, putting all the nav up top like we do traditionally can cause a lot of physical harm if people have to do that repetitively.

“You have to think about ergonomics when you’re designing.”

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It’s a good time to remember Fitts’s law, which is the distance that the user will have to travel—whether it’s with a cursor or they’re tapping with their finger, it’s been proven across the board. But the width of the button and the distance determines how easy it is to actually click that.

When you’re designing your app, if it’s on desktop or web, you need to start thinking about the ergonomics of your designs to really understand how people will use this and reduce the amount of strain and pain that’s gonna be on their hands and their eyes and things like that.

Think: will this be a repetitive task? Is this going to be a repetitive swipe? Is this going to be something like Instagram or Facebook where you’re going through a feed all day? Will the text be too small? Is the contrast going to be easy enough to read? (And if you’re curious, the optimal touch size target is about 44 points for Apple and Google and Microsoft here. But the bigger, the better.)


Something I find interesting is the sheer number of people who need accessibility. We often think it’s this subset of people, when there’s actually 10 million people in the US who are blind or have low vision. So really thinking about the ways that we design our apps to include accessibility is very, very important.

Related: The ultimate guide to web content accessibility

One practical tip: mark and add metadata to everything on the page—especially imagesTwitter Logo—and structure your page top to bottom, which is the way a lot of screen readers go.

Another way that we can accidentally exclude people out of technology is by designing our apps to be data-intensive. For example, if we’re using a lot of images or a lot of complex interactions that take a lot of your data. If we’re not careful, we can really start to exclude people who are data limited. This can be people in the Midwest, people in developing countries—people who will probably be coming online in low-data situations. Take a page out of Twitter and Facebook’s books and put out a low-data version of your product.

There’s an even bigger group of people who need accessibility—people who got older.

That’s all of us. We’re all future people who need better design. For example, font size, contrast, tap target size, and access to help are all things that can completely exclude older adults.

I’ll never forget working with my in-laws to get them plugged into technology so we could share pictures with them. I bought them a brand new Windows computer, because before this, I had sat down with my father-in-law and given him detailed instructions on how to log in to Windows and hop on the Internet. He took notes the whole time, and when we got to Internet Explorer, he had a full page of things to do.

He looked at that list. He studied it. I checked in on him over and over, and he’d just never used a computer, and he tried for hours, and he just couldn’t do it—it was way too difficult for him. This is somebody who grew up totally outside of technology up until recently when he decided to engage.

“Keep accessibility in mind: put out a low-data version of your product.”

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Then we bought him a brand-new Windows computer with the new Metro interface. And when I came back again, he hadn’t even touched it.

Fast forward—we returned that and got them iPhones. We went away for a week, and when we came back, they were using their phones. It was such a wonderful experience to see the accessibility really be inclusive.

Here they were, texting me, telling me, “We love you,” and, “Thank you so much”—it was amazing. They were connecting with their friends overseas. They were finding information about their health. It was a big deal.

And this was only because of things like font size with touch and contrast and things like that, those accessibility options.

Everyone needs this. As we age, we’ll need bigger font size and better contrast. This is a better design even for young people.

Also, remember that a disability can be temporary. So even if you’re young, you’re fit, and everything is good, sometimes you might have a temporary disability—maybe you broke your arm or you’re just holding a baby or you’re holding a bag. There’s a lot of ways that we can be temporarily disabled, and designers need to think about the different ways that our products will be used. It can also be situational.

Think about the breadth of experiences. What are the ways that we can enable our users to just enjoy the moment without having to be engaged with the interface of the product?

Here are a few things you can do: Get involved. Donate your time if you can. And of course, vote—there’s actually user experience-type laws that come up.

Psst! This excerpt is only about half of the goodness from this DesignTalk. To learn more about emotional harm and injustice, watch the full recording of the DesignTalk in the video above! And check out our DesignTalk page to watch the previous episodes and see what’s coming up next.

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