Instagram, Juul, and why it’s time to start answering ethical design questions

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  Dec 20, 2019
Link copied to clipboard

Does the potential benefit of people moving away from tobacco cigarettes outweigh the potential risk for increasing the number of adolescents addicted to nicotine?

This question recently arose on Stanford’s Product Design alumni email list concerning Juul, a company founded by graduates of the master’s program. It’s a complex issue worthy of debate, and I was impressed by how intelligent folks on both sides of the issue could have a civilized discussion about the ethics of the product’s design. Fellow alum Osagie Igbeare summed it up perfectly:

“I think a thoughtful, respectful dialogue around both the facts and sentiment around Juul is what this list is for. These are all very tough questions, and perhaps sensitive, emotional ones…but if design is going to be meaningful in culture going forward, especially in these times ahead of us—these are things that we’re going to be confronted with, like it or not.”

The ethical implications of the products we design are under increasing scrutiny, and these types of debates are becoming more common. This is especially true for social networking products, which due to the scale of their adoption can have broad societal impacts. One of the most high-profile recent examples is Instagram removing visible “likes” on its posts.

Some call it a good move, citing a growing amount of research that says increased anxiety and depression—especially in adolescents—could be a result of heavy use of social media. Others disagree, both on the research and for the potential effects it could have for advertiser and creator revenue streams. But according to a Facebook company spokesperson, community feedback about ethical concerns the product raises (and its potential long-term effects for the business) was evidence enough to conduct an experiment that fundamentally changes the platform.

At Facebook’s F8 conference, Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, explained the decision, saying, “We don’t want Instagram to feel like a competition…we want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they’re getting…and spend a bit more time connecting with the people they care about.”

It’s fair that they can’t share deep insights while an experiment is still running—and just considering the question could be an important first step towards a more ethical experience.

As designers, if we’re going to be proud of the products we help bring into the world, we need to consider the ethics of how they might be used or abused. And it’s only by having open, respectful discussions and debates about these ethical considerations that we’ll attain the results that we are striving for.

Developing a universal code of design ethics

A logical place to start may be establishing an industry-wide ethical code, one that spreads awareness about the consequences of design decisions beyond what is traditionally considered “good” design. Even experiences that feel well-designed might have secondary effects, like addiction and isolation. While there is not a ubiquitously-adopted code, the most currently well-known is Mike Monteiro’s Designer’s Code of Ethics. His first principle:

A designer is first and foremost a human being. By choosing to be a designer you are choosing to impact the people who come in contact with your work, you can either help or hurt them with your actions.” 

He goes on to describe other principles (e.g. know your audience, welcome criticism) that aren’t only good for traditional design practice, but also great starting points for ethical considerations. If there is a shortcoming in Mike’s code, it is that it often leaves little room for nuance and debate, which are necessities for having a good-faith discussion about complex ethical issues.

(Read more about Mike Monteiro’s design ethics here.)

For instance, in discussion of his principle, “A designer values impact over form,” he states that “[a] broken gun is better designed than a working gun.” This is true in the hands of a mass-murderer, but what about in the hands of a soldier preventing a genocide? If designers are to actually create products that explore multiple use-cases for their products, they must be open to productive discussions with colleagues who may think differently than they do.

Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and co-founder and executive director of the Center for Humane Technology is another pioneer in the field of design ethics. His organization’s Humane Design Guide frames these needed discussions and debates through exploring how a product’s design and features might affect a range of human “sensitivities,” including sensemaking (“How we integrate what we sense with what we know”), group dynamics (“How we navigate larger groups, status, and shared understanding”), and social reasoning (“How we understand and navigate our personal relationships”). Each is scored on a scale of the product’s “opportunity to improve” from low to high. Frameworks like this help “take meaningful steps towards designing a more humane product and to identify where investing in a deeper understanding of human nature will yield further benefits.”

So, who’s doing ethics right?

While the current ethical controversies around product design may cloud the conversation, there are companies bringing more ethically-considered products to their customers. These are some of the companies we’ve noticed:

In the world of physical products, Patagonia has long been a leader in ethical design. From developing long-lasting clothing, to pioneering novel recycled materials, to sourcing ethical manufacturers, Patagonia invests a huge amount in making sure its customers get products that do as little harm to the planet as possible, and that employees and vendors are treated in a humane way.

Practicing ethical design is part-and-parcel of the design process for the next generation of product designers.

Twitter Logo

Bridging the realm between digital and physical products, Apple has had its share of controversy over the way that its products are manufactured. But it does use its privacy policy—which it views as a fundamental human right—as a differentiator from other tech companies which have been caught with questionable privacy practices multiple times over their history. Apple has also been a pioneer in creating accessible products and software.

DuckDuckGo, a search engine company, is another organization that takes its ethics seriously, promising that searches are never tracked and customer data is never sold. Despite capturing only about 1% of the market and being the fourth-ranked search engine after Google, Bing, and Yahoo, the platform has more than 30 million searches every day.

What’s next in ethical design?

While understanding design ethics may pose a challenge—or opportunity—for startups and established companies, practicing ethical design is part-and-parcel of the design process for the next generation of product designers.

For the past six years, I’ve taught undergraduates in the Product Design program at Stanford, and I’ve noticed my students have these ethical concerns top of mind when developing new products. From designing a board game for autistic young adults to creating an easily recyclable toy system, they’ve been using design to fulfill the needs of underserved communities or address environmental challenges.

Tech companies are starting to take note, too. Twitter recently eliminated political ads on its platform, which has put pressure on other platforms, including Facebook and Google to reconsider their own policies. Perhaps there is the potential for a “network effect” of ethics as large companies continue to spotlight the issue (or have their customers spotlight it for them).

It’s clear we’re in a defining moment where designers need to pay more attention to the products we design, and the impact they may have on our customers. Ethical issues can be inherently complex, and we need to challenge ourselves to have these open, honest discussions with colleagues and stakeholders who may see the world differently than we do. While most large companies now understand that good design is good for business, we can convince those who don’t by grounding our arguments with examples of ethical products increasing customer loyalty and driving demand for new products. If we’re persistent, we’ll be in a world where everyone understands that ethically-designed products are good for the bottom line as well.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard