When is it OK to manipulate people?

With the topic of ethical design, we find ourselves at a crossroads.

Clearly, methods deployed against users to encourage addiction to digital products has crossed a line. There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating not only the negative effect of such methods, but also an unabashed willingness to employ these methods by many tech companies.

If the line has been crossed, however, where is the line? And who gets to decide where the line is?

In the short essay below, I will outline the two opposing approaches to design ethics that we find ourselves between. I will then go on to discuss the relevant merits & criticisms of such approaches in the context of design ethics, before outlining two ways we may be able to reach a more consensual, ethical approach to design in future.

Deontological vs. Utilitarian

Extreme utilitarianism: The Cultural Revolution in China, resulting in the death of millions in the pursuit of ‘true’ communist ideology Currently, product designers find themselves justifying their actions largely based on a utilitarian approach to product design.

They would argue that the ends justify the means. That, in order to fulfil their mission of increasing user engagement, employing addictive techniques to encourage engagement are necessary; that such techniques are the inevitable consequence of a competitive landscape.

This argument is further supported by the naivety of many product designers, who believe that high user engagement with their product is genuinely beneficial to the user.

We may be sceptical of Facebook’s mission statement of “connecting the world”, but I’m certain there are product designer’s within Facebook that — somewhat naively — genuinely believe increasing user engagement is a positive, utilitarian goal.

More recently, however, with a growing body of evidence to suggest many digital products are making our lives worse, a counter-argument has been building momentum.

Personified by experts such as Tristan Harris, ex-Design Ethicist at Google & labeled “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”, the counter-argument posits the idea that employing techniques in product design that encourage addiction cannot be justified.

Ghandi’s deontological approach: Violence, in his view, could never be justified to expedite the cause of independence in Colonial India This deontological approach suggests that the means are wrong in themselves. And when the means are wrong, no end can be justified.

So where do we draw the line? What constitutes the right approach to ethical design?

Where do we draw the line?

By following a deontological approach, we would be able to create clear boundaries for what is — and what is not — acceptable in product design. Any product design techniques that encourage the release of dopamine, for example, could be prohibited.

But that would be too heavy-handed. What about when encouraging user engagement provides a benefit for the user? Is even welcomed by the user?

Let’s take the example of a meditation app.

If we accept the idea, supported by a huge body of scientific study, that meditation has a massive positive impact on practicioners, then the more addictive the app, the better. Notifications, reminders, creating winning ‘streaks’, etc., would therefore not only be justified, but encouraged.

The more people use the meditation app, the more impactful the consequences of meditation: reduced anxiety, reduced cases of depression, increased happiness, greater decision-making abilities, lower heart-rate, etc.

In which cases, therefore, are we justified in manipulating our customers?

Another critique of the deontological approach is that, by designing a product we have framed the customer’s decision-making in a certain way. As product designers, we can never be completely neutral. We will always influence the decisions our customers make through design.

Rather than ignoring the inevitability of that influence, would it not be better to think more carefully about what would constitute an ethical form of influence in product design?

We could therefore, follow a more utilitarian approach, and allow product designers to decide on what is — and is not — ethical on a case-by-case basis. Such an approach, however, would be far to subjective & open to interpretation. There will unfortunately be greedy designers, unethical designers, ignorant designers, who will cross the line and follow unethical design practises.

It seems, therefore, that the only conclusion to draw is an inconclusive one, lying somewhere in the middle of these two approaches.

So who gets to draw the line?

Following that logic, the product designer community would need to agree on where the line should be drawn (constituting what is & what is not ethical design), whilst also allowing for products with a clear benefit for the customer to employ design practices to encourage user engagement, such as notifications, we would otherwise view as unethical.

This creates some obvious difficulties.

Even if we agree on a set of clear guidelines directing design ethics, how can the disparate, diverse community of product designers around the world agree upon a single solution?

Do we follow the example of other professions, creating a codified document of ethical practice that each product designer must sign to practice in our field? Or should it be voluntary?

Do we create a tool for the product designer community to discuss problems related to design ethics & organically produce a set of guidelines from those discussions? Would the outcome be voted on democratically? What about those not involved in the discussion & voting?

Or do we follow the example of universities, creating a small, select group of wise, learned product designers, who create a design ethics guide we must learn, as we would for any other test?

Whatever we decide upon, it is clear that a line must be drawn in the product design world in order to reverse the trend of many digital products now decreasing the quality of our lives.

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Henry Latham

Henry Latham

Founder, Prod MBA

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