UX Design and Ethical Responsibility to Others: A Necessary Round
An urge for practicing responsible design, everyday.
december 2, 2019
Read the Portuguese Version →
Designers use imagination in every detail they create, and this imagination can be narrowed down if it's not fed from the experience of others. Design is shaped around what it includes, and it includes people and its diversity. So this is necessarily a part of every decision taken. Today the studies of accessibility bring insights about how something as simple as color choices can render a product unusable for millions. And that's just one subject of human diversity possibilities.
If you aren't genuinely interested in the experience of others, your work will be limited.
And this is so important because they it gives design a broader reach: it is only when a product comes into use that it makes sense and fulfils its proposal. Remember that people won't give a damn for a design that hasn't thought about them: "If this doesn't take me into consideration, it's probably not for me anyway".

Companies run on a schedule, employers want raises, work needs to be delivered, and in the middle of this arrangement a ton of poorly made decisions end up being pushed into the world. Sometimes happens that the decision to go live happens still on the self enchanted period of the making, inside the company bubble's view of the world, where sometimes even the most basic conversation about ethics between the involved are skipped or ignored. Irresponsible design can happen even with good designers participating in it. 

And irresponsible design can produce privacy scandals like Facebook's people search filter that was showing men interested in other men for a relationship in Tehran, where sexual activity between members of the same sex is illegal and can be punishable with death.
More on the Tehran case: How Designers Destroyed the World, Mike Monteiro 2015 →
Another example would be exposing homossexual people for parents and family, therefore ruining relationships. If homosexuals were really considered before, this wouldn't have happened. A simple, yet absolutely necessary stage of UX design.
“Be more scared of your work consequences than in love with the smartness of your own ideas”
But if an User Experience designer provides bad experiences to people, what is the point of his activity? How can designers do better? 

Knowing that design is a lot of times the only resource of a company to think about the lives of customers in a deeper way, leaving for us designers to think the ethical barriers, this needs to start being a serious conversation. Because in the end these are business decisions and can affect its ecosystem. It would help if a company embodied an ethical way of thinking it to its strategy, which would naturally shape its culture around it. But if not, we need to get real and talk strategy beyond numbers.

A crucial part of UX Research is matching data from product use (numbers and parameters) with the qualitative aspects behind it: people's impressions and emotions about the product use, which ultimately is the value of a product for a business.
Business goals based on mere growth numbers are blind to impact, and that can harm many, besides causing to miss out in many interesting opportunities along the way. The first "Hiroshima of Data" crafted by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, didn't happen because people wanted to do any harmful things, but by goals based on figures that were far away from reality, or distant from humanity on the other side of the interface. It is an enormous power that technology holds to create huge disasters. Now imagine if it is well used to do good?
Let's not be silly, we are playing with fire.
We can add this round to the UX design process. Designing good accessibility for race, gender, disabilities is not that hard if you have an open window to them. Design that is open for human diversity is good design. Design that thinks mainly about white male educated users, will probably be limited and likely harmful to other people. Data can help us uncover this use cases, so is a good bond with customer support teams.
Beyond the long list of To-dos for the quarter, having an eye for researches on measuring impact is something that won't take you much time and can bring a handful of content about how users lives change with your work.

Designers can be ethical gatekeepers by being careful about launching something, making the important checklist of what should be considered as a decent (at least not bad) work. Doing this, we can take the position as the ones that won't let the company make shit, because that's why we are there after all.
You represent many people when you are designing.
The way of thinking that we practice in Western societies is a linear way, compared to the circular or systemic thinking more commonly found in Eastern cultures, or in more nature-connected cultures, as indigenous people around the world. In circular or systemic thinking, a motivation is not an end goal, but the continuous empowerment of self-sustaining life, enabling the realization of the diversity of events.

North American physicist David Bohm has confirmed we (as linear thinkers) have great difficulty in making connections, imagining other contexts, seeking relationships, and extrapolating the limits of present time and space. And worse: when it is not possible to display immediate visual correlations between the given phenomena, we usually convince ourselves that there are no relations to theorise about. This comes with the idea of ​​wanting to separate what is theoretical from what is practical (operational), as if action were something independent of thought and vice versa.

Bohm called this traditional proposition of our knowledge-building culture “the disease of thought".
It is "sick" to consider this unilateral linear mode of thinking as the only way of guiding and maintaining systems of knowledge. This factor, when accelerated, sounds like colonialism, nazism, and supremacism (Unfortunately, they're still around).
The problem of linear thinking also had its influence on the Industrial Revolution of the 1800's, with the infinite exploration of the earth for materials and the consequences of waste production that we now face. We must not forget that this pattern of consuming and then letting "others" (some miracle) take care also happens on the immaterial level with human emotions. Desires (or lack of desires) being exploited and discarded, leave people susceptible to the next "exploratory products" dependent on the promise of being a new welcoming product, while miserably keeping the wheel of de-energizing consumption moving. It seems that we ended up designing mechanisms of slow suicide.

Systemic thinking must interconnect the parts, narrow the distance between them and allow thinking of the whole (system) without losing sight of all its participants. Therefore, when you make a design decision, you are responsible for life and humanity, the past and the future. This model admits, that in the articulation between the parts, new ideas and opportunities may arise, which would be impossible to visualize from the linear thinking.

It is nothing out of this world, as it is of course a matter of personal interest, if you look at things from the perspective that we are sharing the same system, that it is partly designed by us humans, and therefore that causing problems for others will  affect you back. No wonder we care about the well being of those around us, because we know it can negatively affect us.
In accelerated digital times, it is very difficult to think that our actions are eternally recorded on the time of existence.
Despite the light this article placed on negativity, our work is a beautiful one. While we are designing, we sew societies and ways of life, connecting and projecting information in time into the infinity of the various events that will originate from it. This is the exact breathing point of responsibility.

A good exercise for designers is to think of their portfolio as something they are tattooing not only on their own skin, but also on the skin of all who are printing their work within themselves every day. A methodology to be added to UX thinking is the visualisation of Hazard Mapping, something Erika Hall (Mule Design) studied, and looks very presentable for managers, C-level, etc.
If there were no restrictions given by nature's cause and effect, we would have no reason to create anything in the first place; so let's respect that and, as part of this creation let's keep using restrictions to prevent bad results from happening.

The openness to unknown events has the weight and lightness of holding the pen that scratches the surface. The risk-taking instance is ours, and if done carefully, it can potentially produce wonderful events for many people.

We should recognise the power to change things that we have as designers, and that with this power comes the responsibility of doing the things right.

Let's keep this in mind.
Thanks for reading it :)

More reading

Identity Theft Monitoring: UX Research leading Growth →
november 3, 2020
Thoughts about the UX Process →
February 14, 2020
UX Study: Using Data Tips for a Tour Sales Dashboard →
November 29, 2019