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Unravelling ethical UX design: How can we design systems that work better for people?

For many of us, user experience (UX) design stands as a broad term in a field of modern digital design jargon. The Guardian attempts to define it as, ‘how people feel as they use a digital service and about the way it does things, not just what it does’, while other more generalised attempts define it as the way we experience the world and the systems that underpin this experience. Although its definition is convoluted, UX design’s value is clear. In a recent UX design report compiled by Experience Dynamics, 52 percent of users said that a bad digital experience made them less likely to engage with an organisation, while 83 percent claim a seamless experience across all devices is somewhat or very important.

Perhaps no modern company has greater capitalised on UX design to catapult them to success than Uber. Its digital design has helped solve the pains of traditional taxi services, such as not being able to locate one, or the expensive and unrelenting taxi meter, and replaced it with a ride-hailing service hinged on efficiency and experience. Comparatively, its app provides information on nearby drivers, cheaper predicted costs, and other tools to attract and invite users into the system. The result has seen tremendous scalability, with over three million Uber drivers globally spending 8.5 million hours logged into the digital app every day. For these drivers, the digital app is their work bench, and its suite of tools are relied on to find people, provide rides, and deliver food as efficiently as possible.

So, it’s not surprising Uber has consistently iterated its app design to enable drivers to do their job well, while also gauge information on driver behaviour to help strengthen their service. As a result, its user experience design model mixes its users’ needs, organisational goals, and effective use of technology.  

The latest adaptation – noted by The Atlantic as ‘the biggest experiment in the gig economy’ – began in April last year when it rebuilt the app with the proposition of a ‘newer, kinder’ service for its drivers. It invited hundreds of its staff into the design process, who each submitted detailed and nuanced feedback to its community of researchers, designers, and engineers. It hoped the process would close the gap between the drivers who depend on the software, and those who design it. The changes enabled the app to advise drivers into more profitable regions, allow patrons to tip Uber drivers, along with other advancements to create a more personable interface.

It makes sense for big, progressive companies such as Uber to invest in strong digital design, as it fosters economic return. If Uber had a terribly designed platform for its drivers and customers, it risks losing them to competitors. But other organisations which don’t have the same economic incentives, such as governance websites like the IRD, Statistics New Zealand, or Studylink, are less inclined to see the benefits of user-centric design. Subsequently, online public service processes such as reclaiming tax, contributing to a council survey, or researching a key piece of information, are often densely un-enjoyable tasks for the public.

The result of this can be costly, and in some cases, undemocratic. It can deter people from accessing or engaging with important information, such as local council surveys. A recent investigation into the Auckland Plan 2050 – a document that will directly impact everybody in Auckland – has shown clear division between those who contributed to the survey, and the ethnically diverse public it represents. It gleaned that P?keh? submissions were overwhelmingly high, and Pacific, Asian, and M?ori communities very low. Partly, this is due to a process in what migrant communities felt was designed specifically to exclude them.

Local board member in the M?ngere-?t?huhu office, Lemauga Lydia Sosene, told RNZ: “We have a lot of things stacked against us. The mechanism of filling out a two or three or four-page form – the language required – is difficult.”

Experience is the best teacher

There are a multitude of reasons for low submission rates in areas deprived of wealth and education, and insensitive design is one of them. However, a UX design strategy with better considered information architecture could open up accessibility for the wider communities.

Wellington-based design company Optimal Workshop, which specialises in the field of UX design research and boasts some large clients like IBM, Dropbox, The New York Times, and Netflix, notes the importance of ‘designing for difference’. The company employs around fifty information architects, UX designers, and user researchers, who helps companies implement user experience design strategies, and says that a user shouldn’t be considered as a single individual, but a mosaic of publics who represent different backgrounds, viewpoints, technological ability, cultural identity, and access to technology.

Founder and CEO Andrew Mayfield says building online information architecture is all about wayfinding.

“It’s usually applied online, but it applies anywhere. For example, street signage or signage within bigger buildings like hospitals, airports, or other institutions. This is all information architecture, where people can just follow their nose to where they need to go.”

He considers questions about user behaviour online: “When somebody hits a website, how did they get there? What have they followed to make it onto the website? Once they are there, is the language they are using confusing, or are they using accessible words for everybody? And is the system they have used to file everything on your website adequately representative of your customers thinking in the context they are in?”

He says a common response to this discussion is that they can use a search tool, but the same predicament applies there: is the right language used so that whatever the customer sticks into search will show up with what the customer is looking for?

Essentially, these are the questions Optimal Workshop answers. To do so, it designs digital tools to help companies understand how and why people categorise information. It then offers tools for companies or organisations to apply a mobilised UX design solution.

“We create tools to help you test particular content structures, to find out where people will want to go based on a particular task,” Mayfield says. “We have another tool to help understand first impressions, when someone arrives on a particular website with the plethora of distractions that they might have, we investigate whether they are able to head off on the right direction.”

This is often comprised into two key services: one half provides design agencies tools to use on their clients, and the other half works directly with organisations, such as The New York Times, which uses the tools and research to strengthen its website.  

“User research shows every click counts. It’s not about the number of them, but whether they are on the path to success. The latest tool is reframer and is much more of a qualitative research tool to help companies dive right in and understand people’s motivations and intent through qualitative research methods. All these things add up in the information architecture sense to build up a picture of what people are doing and why.”

Optimal Workshop is a mostly international provider, as 98 percent of its revenue comes offshore. According to Mayfield, approximately half of that comes from the US. He says this is because the problems that Optimal Workshop tools fix are largely those faced by big websites, big intranet, or a big design team, who have complex information architecture needs, and these teams are by-and-large based overseas.

However, it is still active in New Zealand’s digital design space. Aside from working with local ministries, educators, and banks, in October it also ran the UX New Zealand conference, where Mayfield proclaimed “New Zealand has world class design capabilities here.”

Asked what comparisons could be drawn between the US and NZ climates in UX/UI design, Mayfield says,

“I think they do value digital design in New Zealand as much as the States. However, the States have a slightly higher emphasis on investing in this area. But I don’t know if that’s true as a generalisation, I just see more examples, as there is an awful lot more companies there.”

Unintended (or intended) consequences

While the field of UX design is exciting for companies or organisations as they can now intimately understand human behaviour and intricately tailor design to their users’ wants and needs – it has a dark side. In some cases, dark digital design patterns have been used to nudge a user into what to notice, or where to tap or click. In some instances, the result of this is benevolent (like steering someone onto a recommended piece of music) but in other cases, it’s more complicit.

“The idea of understanding intent is an important one,” Mayfield says. “Not conducting research in a way that is designed to reinforce existing legislation or proposals, but looking for ways that will truly support a healthy agenda and what people are looking for takes a different way of looking at things. It should be the Government’s role to be doing these things, to be setting policies that understands the people and their needs.”

“If you look at the way marketing is done – and I’m not talking about governments here – but if marketing is done simply to increase and inflate sales, then you can do this by telling mistruths, but people aren’t getting what they wanted. The way that government works, it can do the same thing.

“On the internet, where a click is essentially a vote for an ad, or the next piece of content you are about to see, then it becomes very important.””

One example is how news is distributed online to increase the number of clicks through sensationalist titles or arresting images (translation: clickbait) rather than directing the public onto stories about less attention-grabbing yet substantive issues.

“You don’t want to feed people what gives them a sugar rush,” Mayfield says. “When you are talking about food, and you feed people based on the best taste of the moment, it’s not always the best choice. And of course, then it comes down to, whose choice is it? In the area of news, it’s the same thing: you don’t want to give people exactly what tastes or sounds great in the moment. Even though often that is exactly what we get.

“It can influence what people know and believe. It’s really important, and in a sense it’s the same argument about whether it is reasonable that fast food chains serve food presented as healthy looking showcasing its excellently pristine lettuce, when it really isn’t.”

However, while user-centred design is full of ethical considerations, at its core, it’s about understanding people and applying best practices to serve them through design. If people were placed at the heart of council surveys, the application process would be a seamless and enjoyable experience for users. Therefore, it could create more public engagement in the places that need it the most.

Mayfield says, “Understanding human behaviour is key, and of course you can use that for both good and for bad, as we see. I believe that user experience design is centred around using these things we learn about human behaviour for good, not using what we learn about human behaviour to manipulate and cajole, but to understand how the company’s interests and those of the customers align. Or, how can the government’s interests align to the people that they serve. That’s what these tools are here to do.”

So, what steps need to be taken to ensure alignment between peoples interests and the technology that serves them? A global organisation called The Center for Humane Technology offers some useful suggestions in the path to equitable design. It champions empathetic design that understands our most vulnerable human instincts, so that we can design compassionately to protect them from being exploited and points to big tech providers – Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft – to redesign their devices and core interfaces to guard our minds from constant distractions, limit screen time, and replace the App Store marketplace based off competition for usage with a marketplace of tools competing to benefit our lives and society. Others have taken it a step further – such as Mike Monteiro, an outspoken Silicon Valley designer – who argues design needs to be a licensed profession like architecture, complete with training, testing and accreditation.

Furthermore, it’s important the government looks to harness the opportunities and mitigate the risks attached to the ballooning user experience design area. The design council in the UK has released a comprehensive list of recommendations to strengthen design in the public sector, which are transferable to a New Zealand landscape. It calls for investment into design advice and support for the public sector, to incentivise local authorities to better engage with the importance of design, and to inspire design leadership. Additionally, a prominent researcher, Dorothy Shamonsky, has drawn the need for a code of ethics in user experience design comparable to an architectural building standards.

As governments, businesses, and organisations scramble to keep up with the developments in UX design, it’s important to consider the myriad of effects it has on human behaviour, which can be used both for good and bad.

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