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UX Design Ethics: Dealing with Dark Patterns and Designer Bias

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It’s easy to design an interface that persuades users into something that’s in the interest of a company. The question the design community needs to ask more often is if we should comply with such practices, argued Agnieszka Urbańska and Ewelina Skłodowska, UX designers, at ACE! 2019. So called "dark patterns", and even unconscious designer’s bias, contradict empathy and are incompatible with human-centered design. Most KPIs rely on users’ addictive engagement and aggressive UX strategy, but designers should be careful that their clients’ business objectives are not contrary to the principles of ethics, they said.

The world is gradually becoming dependent on new technologies, making designers more responsible, said Urbańska. Designers must be aware that the products and applications they create are used by millions  of people, and that their work has a real impact on other people’s lives. She quoted Spiderman: "With great power comes great responsibility". Each project decision contains a part of ourselves, reflects how we perceive the world, and how we read the emotions and feelings of others, she said.

Skłodowska mentioned that part of the work of a UX designer is to evangelize their company, showing the advantages of user research or best design practices. If you do it right, it can lead to creating a product that has the power to actually change human behavior, she said. Not claiming the responsibility for the ethical issues of the product you are designing can have a detrimental effect on people, argued Skłodowska; the least we can do as designers is to follow up answers to "How might we…?" with " How will it affect…?".

At ACE! 2019 Skłodowska and Urbańska spoke about their fight against "dark patterns". When using the Internet, the user does not read in depth all the words on each page, said Skłodowska. If a company wants to persuade users to do something that’s in their interest, it is not that difficult. They simply take advantage of their habits and use visual design to misguide the user, by making it more prominent, more tempting to click on, bigger, or colorful.

We could place the button in an area of the screen that we know the user will scan when they land on the site, said Skłodowska. The question we should be asking is whether we SHOULD do something with this button. Companies tend to place the responsibility for users’ interactions with the app or website on users themselves. That is not right, she argued.

Skłodowska stated that users should not be forced to find ways to defend themselves from popping notifications or dark patterns. They shouldn’t be put in that position in the first place. It’s like focusing on the importance of women to carry pepper spray with them at all times instead of dealing with the reason why they would need to do that, why they feel threatened, she said.

Dark patterns are in direct conflict with the concepts we believe in as designers; they contradict the concept of empathy and are incompatible with the human-centered design process, argued Urbańska. She suggested that designers should be watchful; they need to pay attention to their clients’ business objectives, making sure they are not contrary to the principles of ethics. It happens that sometimes clients’ pressure to use bad practices is very strong, but at that moment we should explain and educate them on why the use of these practices is harmful for users and also for business in a long-term context, said Urbańska.

InfoQ spoke with Agnieszka Urbańska, UX designer at Isobar Poland, and Ewelina Skłodowska, UX designer at El Passion.

InfoQ: How can we design products for diversity and inclusion?

Ewelina Skłodowska: I think the first and most important thing we should stick to when designing is to do no harm to the users. Only when we make sure that this standard has been achieved, other questions may follow.

There are many UX tools that we can apply to help us understand all of our users, and not only the most common type. One of the most popular is using personas. They are similar to CVs and are meant to help product teams understand and empathize with different customer types.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s in Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech writes about her experience with working on user personas with high-level marketing directors. Trying to be more inclusive and address different user needs, she used a picture of a black woman for the persona of a finance executive. It appeared that her high-end clients couldn’t imagine this to be the case. You see, for them, a finance executive was a middle-aged white man. That’s because they were only looking at it from a demographics perspective. When you do that, it usually means that you want to create something that fits everyone. But something that fits everyone in reality fits no one. What did Sara do in this situation? She cut the pictures, leaving all other aspects of the persona untouched. And it worked!

So when creating personas, think about an additional one that might not be in line with the picture that the client has in mind. Treat edge cases with the same attention as so-called normal users. Do your research. Find out who actually uses the product you are designing. The findings may surprise you.

Agnieszka Urbańska: Designing a simple form or creating a new reality in the virtual world can give us the opportunity to overcome harmful stereotypes and misconceptions. For example, instead of asking your user about gender and giving them only two possible answers, male or female, you can let the user customize the gender.

Another thing that a designer can do is start to implement the emojis with different skin tones or of different sexual orientations. Our role is to create personas without assumptions and without using stereotypical information about the audience. Small changes in our perception of the world and openness to diversity can even bring social changes.

InfoQ: Do you think design can actually fight racism, discrimination, prejudices or even climate change?

Urbańska: When I talked to my friends who are also UX designers, they were very skeptical about the designer’s role to fight racism or discrimination. But design can’t just be incidental. Our work has an impact on people’s lives. There are many good and bad practice examples that prove that we really can start to change the world with our work.

A good example of the fight against racism or prejudice is, for example, the use of a variety of emojis (Facebook probably initiated this practice) that have different skin colors or show different sexual orientations.

Skłodowska: Call it the butterfly effect. I don’t think that designers alone can stop climate change or discrimination! But you never know what will happen when the product you are designing goes live. How will it evolve and change people’s lives? Do you think designers of Uber were thinking how their product would completely change the way people moved around the city? And do you think they imagined what would it do to the group of old school taxi drivers?

I’ve recently attended a conference where I saw a demo of a bot that you could implement to your website’s comments / forum section. The bot would react to harmful language and intervene in a way that could help people talk to each other with more empathy. I was struck by the fact that it actually worked! People would tone down their offensive comments and try to find common ground.

InfoQ: How can designers reflect on how they do their work and improve their way of working?

Urbańska: Designers must realize that they have a real influence on their clients’ actions, product strategies, and decisions made in the organizations. Of course, it takes a lot of effort to build an ethical system of values, but thanks to that we can become better designers and also better people.

Skłodowska: I would go with a checklist solution.

There are a couple of questions you need to answer to know if you are on the right path:

  • Does your design change the way people interact for the better?
  • Does the design aim to keep users spending time they didn’t intend to?
  • Does the design make it easy to access socially unacceptable or illegal items that your users would not have easy access to otherwise?
  • Would you be comfortable with someone else using your design on you?
  • Does your design use deception, manipulation, misrepresentation, threats, coercion or other dishonest techniques?
  • Does your design contain any designer biases built in (gender, political, or other)?
  • Does your design protect users’ privacy and give them control over their settings?

These are not easy questions to answer. But the fact that you are trying to do so is already a small win.

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