As design gains a greater role on the business stage, as brighter spotlight is shone on it, design as a practice is fast growing into a mature and responsible adult. Not only is the design industry aware of its great significance, it is also taking responsibility for aspects that are more fundamental and intrinsic to products, both digital and physical.

Ethical design is, therefore, no more an afterthought starting with diversity in people imagery and ending with testing accessibility for the differently abled. It is now more nuanced and flows deeper within the muscle of the product. Indeed, ethical design strengthens a product (or service) and it is a business imperative. Today more than ever before.

Some key aspects of ‘Ethical Design’ that should be taken into consideration by every UX practitioner.

Design for inclusiveness

  • All genders, demographics, races and ethnicities; minimization of unconscious biases and unintended exclusions.
  • A range of nationalities and regional identities, urban and rural.
  • For voice-enabled products, relevant accents and manner of speech including colloquialisms, abbreviations and typical phraseologies.
  • No stereotypes and what is typically understood as ‘expected’ behavior of user segments (e.g., LGBTQ, older women, indigenous populations, and others).

A product in the digital is available to all, and is accessed by people with varying abilities, interests and cultures. The more inclusive a product, the wider spread its usage, across users and geographies. Does this not make perfect business sense? More importantly, it aids in building a better society and world.

Think sustainable design

It’s widely accepted that 80 percent of the ecological impacts of a product are focused (and handled) in the design phase of a product.

Decisions taken during the design phase are crucial to the entire life cycle with regard to the product’s relationship and effects on people, planet and business profits.

Research and white-boarding, gathering insights, prototyping, user feedback and finally production of a digital or physical product should factor this in. Factors that influence – prominently – and need insightful exploration are: impact on environment (negative and otherwise), on society (values, social norms and specific demographic targeting) and business value (in the immediate time frame and in the long term).

Context of design

Who is the target user’ – this line of design thinking is old-hat. Look for the deeper unseen connections with users’ lives and their decisions. Think of the long-term impact of your design and its intersection with social and environmental factors. Consider the mental map and the psychological conditioning of potential users. Post pandemic, these below-the-surface systemic aspects have greatly magnified in their bearing upon products and services design.

We were once designing a solution for nutrition among rural mothers and infants. Among the many things to be taken into consideration were also the most personalized details like: language dialects in a region, a mother’s usual daily routine, average distance to the closest health center, divorced and abandoned mothers, extreme weather topographies (snow or extreme cold and extreme heat) and so on.
The design model overlaid on the social model – and that is the only way the solution can have real meaning for the end user.

Ethics in design enlivens the promise of being well-integrated (and sustainable) in its physical world replete with its social realities, imperfections, even quirks. Based on the powerful concept of product stewardship, it helps to ‘regulate’ the field of design in much the same way as medicine or law is regulated to provide lasting value and meaning to people and societies.

Whereas earlier generations of designers often considered ethics to be outside their pale, not any more. In fact, this is the key to making design more accountable, and respond in a wholesome way to present-day human and business demands.

Photo by Anderson Guerra:

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