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What does ethical design mean?

4 min read
Shayna Hodkin  •  Aug 5, 2019
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Most of us have to work to pay our bills, but we can still do work we’re proud of.

In July, we hosted a “fireside chat” conversation with InVision VP Community and Partnerships Mike Davidson and LinkedIn VP User Experience Sarah Alpern where they explored the ethics of design work: who’s obligated to enforcing ethical codes, what ethical design leadership means, and how to construct ethical goals.

When talking about the designer’s role in creating ethical work, Alpern made her opinion on the designer’s place loud and clear.

“Given the designer’s role…not only do we have a role, but we have a responsibility to make sure that what we’re creating is responsible because we have a lot of power and a lot of influence.”

The designers on the ground hold a lot of power. As the ones doing, it’s up to them to raise their hands when they see a problem—though company culture might not always make this easy or safe. For example, when inflexible OKRs conflict with ethical design, speaking out in favor of the “right” thing may feel like putting yourself in front of a firing squad.

Both Davidson and Alpern agree that support for ethics has to come from above. When designers feel like they’re slaves to OKRs holding them to increased revenues and signups, they’ll feel pressured to do whatever it takes to get there—even when that means relying on choices they know aren’t optimal.

“When support for open discourse doesn’t come from senior leadership…the psychological safety of employees is at risk.”

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Davidson recalled an example he saw on Twitter of a customer support agent responding to a complaint from a user about a feature they couldn’t turn off—automatic read receipts for email recipients, without any option of opting in (or out). The support agent responded, basically, with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯—they said they were aware of the problem, it was indeed an ethical overstep, but there was nothing they could do. Their hands were tied.

How many times have you felt silenced in the face of a moral or ethical misstep, out of fear of retaliation or isolation? When support for open discourse doesn’t come from senior leadership, Davidson points out, the psychological safety of employees is at risk—leading them to stay silent and not exercise their design skills to the best of their abilities.

Alpern and Davidson both argued that ethical design starts with diverse teams—from the top down. Alpern said, “It’s really critical that we hire diverse teams, diversity of race, but also gender, but also of just thinking, where you come from, point of view and then you create a culture that those people feel empowered to raise their hands when something’s going, because you might have the best of intentions but…if they’re all from the exact same place with the exact same background, they’re just not going to catch everything.”

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This fireside chat wasn’t a one-time thing; it’s a monthly meetup where everyone in the Design Leadership Forum comes together to listen to two interesting people have valuable discussions on things that matter.

The Forum is a global community of about 1800 members (and growing). It’s a place for design leaders to come together, connect, and have honest conversations about some of the most difficult challenges they face in their leadership roles. Every community member leads teams making digital products; if you want to be part of this community, learn more and nominate yourself here.