Within five years, 80% of adults will own a smartphone. Never before has the world embraced a technology so quickly. Digital designers now have a medium that can reach not just local markets but an instant global audience. Tech companies already boast userbases of hundreds of millions, even billions: virtual populations in their own right.

Although these millions usually spend longer in their favourite apps than their favourite urban spaces, users have little say in how digital space is made. Mass public consultation is rare. Instead, roadmaps are devised and built according to the strategies of private enterprise. If a user is unhappy with the outcome, their only recourse may be to abandon the service: a significant renunciation in the case of global utilities like Google search or Facebook.

It therefore falls to designers and their colleagues at these tech giants to ensure their products are beneficial to the world.

Disruption is Silicon Valley’s current watchword. Start-ups are optimised for shaking up vulnerable industries rather than assessing the resulting social, legal and ethical impact. Progress itself is the yardstick; whether that progress is in a worthwhile direction is sometimes secondary.

This attitude is partly to be expected given the infancy of many tech companies, with leadership teams that show talent but lack big-game experience. It’s also clear that the industry has a big diversity problem. At some Silicon Valley companies, just 1% of engineers are black. Female representation in technical roles often hovers around 20%. Growing tech companies have too frequently hired for a ‘culture-fit’ mould of 20-something, educated white men: intelligent people, yes, but hardly worldly-wise.

There’s no doubt tech innovation has improved the world in many ways. But the industry’s revolutionary mindset, combined with the narrow perspective of a homogeneous workforce, means companies sometimes act with questionable ethics.

  • A 2012 Facebook research study attempted to analyse “emotional contagion” by prioritising happy or unhappy Newsfeed stories. The company did not ask the 689,000 participants for informed consent (relying instead on existing terms of service), and appeared not to have considered the potential effect on users with depression.

We might attribute these issues to naïve oversight: the sort of lapse we’d expect from a booming, excitable industry. But sometimes it’s harder to advocate leeway.

The so-called dark pattern is a creeping trend on the web and in apps alike: an interface intended to trick users into disadvantageous behaviour. The double-negative obfuscation of marketing checkboxes is a familiar example, but more serious examples abound. Some e-commerce sites sneak in additional items to a user’s shopping basket without consent, and it’s regrettably common for online services to offer a painless setup process but bury cancellation inside a tortuous call-centre menu.

Regulation is starting to constrain some of the worst offences but, sadly, in an industry changing so quickly, there’s ample opportunity for wrongdoing before regulators catch up.

The Internet of Things – the coming wave of hyper-connectivity that embeds technology into everyday objects – presents a fresh set of ethical challenges. Our public spaces and homes will soon be dotted with connected devices that can listen to our every word, or gather sensitive data about our weight, our sex lives, our possessions. The benefit could be phenomenal – but so is the risk of abuse.

Designers as such have a central role in safeguarding digital products so they not only empower but also protect users.

This responsibility starts with designers’ own output. Design teams should demand high ethical standards from themselves and their colleagues. Internal product development conversations are where key ethical questions are answered, whether intentionally or not. Designers should be active in these conversations, advocating for user needs, identifying areas for deeper research and highlighting ethical concerns even at the risk of short-term unpopularity.

Designers should also strive to give digital products a healthy balance of seamlessness and interrogability. While it’s appealing to create technology that needs little human intervention, this sort of black box can be a breeding ground for dishonest behaviour. High-risk systems should be interrogable, so that a sufficiently motivated user can learn about what a system is doing, what data it’s gathering and where that data goes. The success of connected technologies is largely predicated on trust – allowing users to lift the bonnet will hopefully make this trust easier to earn.

Digital designers are, furthermore, well placed to push for increased team diversity. As ambassadors for global userbases, designers know well the range of mentalities and approaches people bring to technology. Homogenous teams are too easily swept up in camaraderie, seeing only exciting gains for people like them, yet blind to potential harm for people not like them. The broad perspective of diverse teams offers better insight on tough choices: early warning of ethical issues that may disadvantage particular groups.

Underpinning everything is a need to communicate. Digital designers should help users understand what’s happening inside the products they rely on. Only then can customers make truly informed choices. Designers should also educate lawmakers on the consequences of bad ethical practice and advocate for regulation where appropriate. To this end, our industry has a duty to highlight damaging practice wherever it is found, and to continue to educate the public about misleading or harmful aspects of digital products. Our global audience deserves technology that works in its very best interests.

Cennydd Bowles is a digital product designer, recently design manager at Twitter. He is the author of the book Undercover User Experience Design.

Other articles in The Design Economy series:

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