6 Questions all experienced designers should be able to answer

The mob picked up torches and pitchforks to go after the business people and programmers that made Facebook, Twitter and Google evil. So I’ve been trying to make sense of the ethical challenges that can come with designing digital products. Just in case somebody realizes designers may have played a role too.

The more time I spend with design ethics, the more questions I have. And I may never find a definitive way to always design ethically. Because here’s the thing:

  1. Ethics is moral philosophy: a branch of philosophy.
  2. Philosophy has been unsuccessful in describing the world, what life is and what it should be like. So Gilles Deleuze argued, philosophy is about the creation of new ideas and concepts in the world.

So even if I’d become a top design ethicist (whatever that entails), best case scenario, I would create a new concept. And not even a concept design, mind you. So today I won’t write that one article with all the answers. I’d never finish it.

Questions about ethics in design

Here are the questions I think all designers should have an answer to. In fact, everyone in new product development should. I hope you can answer them like “C’mon, are you so corrupted by capitalism/socialism/design blogs that these questions are hard?” If so, please let me know.

Seriously, I want to know your strong opinions and well-argued answers. You find my contact data near the top of the page. I promise you I will reply and try to make it an interesting dialog.

1. Do designers have more ethical responsibility than others in product development?

  • Yes, designers know users best, so they should inform the team about possible effects of a product.
  • No, designers are only a part of a chain of responsibility. Typically neither at the start or the end.

2. Should user-centered designers always side with the user?

  • Yes, that’s what user-centered design is for. Otherwise it’s user-centric design, a.k.a. marketing. Or engineering.
  • No, designers are responsible for the overall success of a product they’re creating. Business viability and technical feasibility are prerequisites for success. Sometimes that goes against user interests.

Update: In my post User-centered design versus user-centric design you can read my actual answer.

3. What processes and behaviors already address ethical issues in product development effectively?

  • How can we improve those?
  • If we haven’t done enough already to make products ethically, what would be enough?

4. How do we define what’s good for users?

  • How can we go beyond the paternalistic approach where a design/product team defines what’s good for the world?
  • How can we measure goodness?

5. Should all user-centered designers have manifestos?

  • Yes, because manifestos make it easy to make the right choice in most situations.
  • No, they’re oversimplified yet pedantic virtue-signaling documents that aren’t helpful in real ethical challenges (let alone identifying them).

6. If using exploits in computers is illegal, why is using exploits in people’s brains allowed?

  • Do Good Design and deceptive patterns only differ in the intent of the designer?
  • What would ethical advertising be like?


Despite the title of this post and me being an experienced designer, I don’t have answers to most of these questions. And I may never have them. I will try to find them though and I hope (sidenote: And tell me about it! ) . I’ll let you know about my progress on my blog.