The Rise of the Ethical Product Designer


Our industry has been making some pretty shitty design decisions in recent years. And as a result, we’ve been building some pretty shitty digital products.

I don’t think most of us ever intended to do harm, but in our quest to move fast and break things, we forgot to stop and ask ourselves how our design decisions might affect society. We forgot to ask “what could go wrong?” And now we're the digital builders working in an industry saturated with unethical products, platforms and business models that are taking advantage of people.

So you know what? We need to get our shit together. We need to start designing better products, better business models, and better businesses. And the way to do that is to start building ethical product design practices into the way we work.

In order to adopt some more ethical ways of designing, there are eight questions we should be asking ourselves.

1. Are we following a design code of ethics?

Unlike doctors, engineers, lawyers or accountants, web and app designers don’t need a license to operate. And yet the digital products we are designing and building have major impacts on our society. Our industry should consider requiring a license.

Until we have something in place, try and find a good code of ethics to use as a framework for your own ethical design practice. Mike Monteiro’s code of ethics is a good start, and there are many other examples out there.

2. Do we have our own set of personal design principles, values and philosophy?

We spend hours thinking about our company's values and design principles, but not our own.

Take some time to write down what you value, and articulate what’s important to you when designing digital products.

3. Are we actually designing things that are good for humanity?

We need to do less User-centred design, and more Humanity-centred design. We need to be building stuff that isn’t just good for the user, but good for the human race.

So don’t forget to slow down, and ask yourself “is this something that the world really needs?”

4. Are we designing mindfully?

For too long, we’ve been using Silicon Valley techniques to ‘hook’ our users to encourage ongoing, ‘sticky’ engagement. But we’ve gone too deep on this. We’ve chosen addiction over user experience, and now two-thirds of the planet just anxiously check their phones all day.

Instead, we should design technology for a positive mental state. A product should respect the user, place a value on human attention, and look after the people who are affected by it.

5. Is our business model fair to all parties?

Are our products 'fair' to all customer segments? Or is someone getting ripped off?

Most tech business models have been designed to deliver an amazing experience to one user group, but at the expense of another. Uber is a godsend for the passenger, but  the driver is getting ripped off. Spotify is incredible value for the subscriber, but the musicians are getting completely screwed. Facebook is a completely free service. But as they say, “If you're not paying, you're not the customer — you're the product”. Facebook is all about advertising revenue, not its users. We’re the ones getting ripped off here. And don’t get me started on Twitter.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. And there are of course, many exceptions. Etsy is one that springs to mind. They’re a purpose-driven organisation, and a company that values both sides of the marketplace, the seller and the buyer. No one is getting ripped off. And that just feels fair.

6. Have we tested for Abusability?

“Our understanding of what 'better product' means has evolved. When we used to say 'better products' we meant those that were easy to use. Today, however, better products respect people and avoid doing harm.”

Dan Brown - UX in the Age of Abusability

I’ve only recently come across the idea of Abusability testing. The idea that we should stress-test our products for the potential harm that they could cause. I’m keen to start running ethical design exercises, like the Black Mirror Brainstorm idea suggested here:

7. Are we saying “No” often enough?

Are we saying no to unethical business models that take advantage of people?

Are we knocking back roles and projects that don’t match our personal values?

Are we standing up against dark patterns and deceptive behaviour, that deliberately manipulate and disrespect our users?

We need to say “No” more often.

8. Are we building diverse and inclusive teams and cultures?

In 2019, I bet we’ll see a new wave of amazing digital products, built by values-driven businesses, with diverse design teams and an ethical design culture. If you’re a design leader, you have a tremendous opportunity to be part of this wave.


Design ethics isn’t just a hot topic. And ethical design shouldn’t just be another feather in our bow. It needs to be at the core of what we do, and how we define ourselves as a design profession.

Here are some great links, books and posts for further reading:

This is by no means a complete list, so please share any great articles or resources that you have. Thanks!

Ben Rowe

Ben Rowe

Ben Rowe is a UX Designer and Product thinker based in Melbourne. A marketer by trade, Ben moved into UX design almost ten years ago. He's helped improve the experiences of a wide range of digital projects and products. Ben has worked for large corporates, small startups and everything in between.
Ben lives in Kyneton in central Victoria, Australia, and is expecting to have a mid-life crisis any day now.

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