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How to Provide an Honest and Ethical User Experience

Tony Sherba
Tony Sherba

Giving users an unethical experience can do long-term harm to your business.

An intuitive, engaging experience is the worthy aspiration of all good product designers. An interface that meets the expectations users might not have thought about and makes them feel comfortable and instantly familiar with a product is the ultimate goal. The job of a product designer is all about creating products that seamlessly find their way into the everyday lives of customers.

There's a twist here, though. We're starting to see common user experience tactics coming under fire for being manipulative. Think about the infinite social media feeds that drive users to scroll and scroll until hours have slipped by.  Or relentless upgrade and upsell messages on applications. Millions are bombarded with these issues daily.

A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that a quarter of Americans said they are online "almost constantly", with 43 percent going online several times each day. The Netflix show "Black Mirror" recently addressed the issue of social media addiction elegantly in the episode "Smithereens." User experience designers have done their jobs so well that it's starting to become a societal problem.

So the question now becomes how can we balance good product design with ethics because they seem to be increasingly at odds. The design teams of businesses large and small need to begin holding themselves accountable. Here's how:

1. Don't exploit your users' fear of missing out.

User experience design can be manipulative as long as it truly benefits the user. A gamified weight loss app, for instance, could encourage users to live a healthier lifestyle. That's a good form of manipulation.

On the other hand, many apps aim to exploit users’ fear of missing out, which is a tried-and-true marketing tactic, but it's not necessarily ethical when you're in a user's pocket and able to leverage friends and family as collateral. The design choices made at these companies contribute to the isolation users feel on certain social platforms.

A study conducted by psychologists at Nottingham Trent University found that the fear of missing out was the most significant contributing factor for people developing social media addiction.

Instead of using negative consequences to motivate users, such as making them feel bad when they don't perform a task or join a group, design teams should focus on positive reinforcement instead. This can be done in simple messaging or in the form of small animations and celebrations that encourage users to complete desired behaviors. Fear is a powerful motivator, but using it as a design tool makes you more of a dictator than a benevolent leader. Especially at small companies, the easiest thing to design for is often fear. But you will build a stronger, more ethical company if you focus on empowerment instead.

2. Don't design products that are harmful to users' health.

Apps and sites — especially social ones — often exploit people's inherent desire to belong and guilt them into posting. The numbers back this up, too: using Facebook could actually decrease your overall well-being. This is especially true for mental health.

study published in January links depression in teen girls in part to the many hours they spend using social media. The "Millennium Cohort Study" found that depression in girls was linked to interactions with social media platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp. Negatively impacting users' health doesn’t indicate successful design, it suggests one that capitalizes on negative tendencies and lowers self-esteem.

Businesses deploying apps shouldn't just track success metrics that show how much engagement they are getting. Looking at just these numbers encourages pumping clicks and the zombie-like addict behavior we see all too often.

Don't forget the qualitative data as well. Find out how you are bringing joy and value to people's lives and making them feel better about themselves. Too much focus on the quantitative instead of the qualitative leads to exploitative behavior. Talking to your users is an incredibly important part of the early stages of product design because it allows you to build empathy.

3. Don't show prejudice in your designs.

Designers are trained to build things that make people feel comfortable, but the best designers know when ethics demand a closer look.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why all our voice assistants appear to be female, for instance? Many design professionals suggest that users prefer female voices even though the data doesn’t support that claim. One Indiana University study found that while users preferred women's voices when talking about love and relationships, they preferred men's voices if they were getting advice on how to fix a computer. Another common argument is that female voices are easier to understand, but the evidence is still lacking.

When software takes on a human representation (such as Siri, whose very name means “beautiful woman who leads you to victory”), think about whether the design is perpetuating existing stereotypes or fighting against them. By educating yourself about common biases, you might uncover some stereotypes that you have been perpetuating unknowingly. This small bit of education will allow your team members to evaluate the design choices they are making.

Please don't go change every instance your design uses human representation to gender-neutral robots. Informing yourself and, by extension, your design can elevate the ethics of the product you are building. Encourage your team, no matter how small, to take time to understand the biases they might carry as well.

4. Don't trick people to increase profits.

In design, pop-ups asking for consent or an agreement of some kind almost universally use dark patterns that are contrasted with brightly colored "agree and continue" buttons. When faced with reading the fine print, humans naturally look for the quickest way out. Designers make it easy for them to agree without reading by illuminating the button they want users to click. We've all been there and done that.

This psychological tendency can be used against consumers, though. During a recent Ticketmaster purchase, I was robbed of $10. A visual design cue for ticket insurance was modeled after the standardized “complete your order” button. By the time I clicked it, there was no way for me to cancel the insurance purchase. It was immediately clear that this design was created to be an intentionally confusing way to drive profits.

This isn't an isolated incident. When UX specialist Sigma looked at retail brands, it found that various companies use quite a few shady methods to increase revenue, such as using bright colors on answers the seller wants you to click but leaving the "no thanks" buttons unshaded.

Besides this, companies simply have an incentive to keep users glued to their screens. Endlessly scrolling feeds show more ads to users, which means companies earn more while leeching users' time.

Trickery and deceit have become common in UX design. In his book "Evil by Design," Chris Nodder organizes examples of design by exploiting each of the seven deadly sins. While sketching out workflows and creating interfaces, designers need to be honest with consumers by not intentionally confusing them and using their design training to make the appropriate choices clear.

Businesses' design teams need to stop focusing solely on profit and engagement metrics, as it could require crossing ethical lines that could do harm to your users and your business's long-term reputation. Not only could it result in bad publicity, but, more importantly, it's also unethical. There are so many other ways to build loyal customers. Designs should enrich users' lives instead of detracting from them.

Image Credit: baranq/Shutterstock
Tony Sherba
Tony Sherba Member
Tony Scherba is the president and a founding partner of Yeti LLC, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco. Yeti partners with small teams, either inside larger corporations or run independently, at the early stages of the product development process. Yeti has worked to develop large-format touch-screen projects, mobile applications, and many other software systems for clients such as Google, Westfield, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Flextronics.