6 Questions all experienced designers should be able to answer

The mob picked up torches and pitchforks to go after 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.

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.

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.

What processes/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?

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?

Should all user-centered designers have manifestos?

  • Yes, because manifestos make it easy to make the right choice in most situations.
  • No, they’re pedantic, virtue-signaling documents in Helvetica derivatives. They oversimplify and are not useful in real situations.

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

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


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

Simone de Beauvoir about asking ethicists to provide answers:

Which action is good? Which is bad? To ask such a question is to fall into a naive abstraction. We don’t ask the physicist, “Which hypotheses are true?” nor the artist, “By what procedures does one produce a work whose beauty is guaranteed?” Ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods.

To make things worse, Martha Nussbaum added:

Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning.

I’m a total poser with all these fancy philosopher names and quotes now. Because I haven’t even read much of the original publications. I know about their ideas, thanks to:

  • Very Bad Wizards—“a podcast featuring a philosopher (Tamler Sommers) and a psychologist (David Pizarro), who share a love for ethics, pop culture, and cognitive science, and who have a marked inability to distinguish sacred from profane.”
  • Philosophize This!—Stephen West’s super entertaining yet information-dense philosophy podcast
  • Maria Popova’s Brainpickings blog
  • Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast, that questions what it means to be successful in tech.