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The Ethics of Everyday Things

Does good design mean designing for good?

Discussions of ethics and design often fall victim to two problems.

The first is the hand-waving problem. Designers talk about ethics with such aspirational generalities that we have no path to changing our behaviour in our everyday work (Mike Monteiro’s writing is an example of this). What use is ethics if I can’t use it to affect everyday decision-making?

The second is the “save the world” problem. In this view, the only “good” problems to solve are those that have obviously good outcomes (improving health or education, reducing poverty or gender inequality, etc). But there just isn’t enough of this kind of work for the army of designers who need jobs. What use is ethics if you can’t access the work required to put it into practice?

Designers are well familiar with using toolkits in their work (design patterns, usability heuristics, etc). These are clear, actionable (and flexible) tools that help guide decision-making on a day-to-day basis. Why can’t it be the same for ethics?

I would like to present a third vision: a view of design ethics that is both accessible AND actionable. This presentation will show that it’s possible to bring ethical judgements and conversations into everyday design.

The first step is exposing the moral content of design decision-making. The tools and systems we create as designers shape people’s behaviour. In this sense, design “tells people what they should do”, which is basically the job of ethics. Human-centred design is not a neutral process; it has a point of view and we need to look at the tools we use and make clear how they affect our decision-making and people’s lives.

Secondly, we need to create tools that help designers exercise moral judgement in their everyday work. For this, we need something like Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics - a set of design ethics tools that are accessible, approachable and actionable. Ethics needs to move beyond the conference hall and bar and into everyday design discussions between designers, and with our stakeholders and partners.

I will present a clear vision for both opportunities. This will include both a proposal for analysing the tools we use in our day-to-day, as well as a set of 10 Ethical Heuristics, along with real examples. This talk will give designers the tools needed to bring conversations about ethics into the boardroom, just like Nielsen brought user-centricity there 23 years ago.

Gabriel White

I am the founder and principal consultant at Small Surfaces, an international design consultancy that works on social impact projects in developing countries. I work on projects that improve education, healthcare and access to financial services for low-income people.

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