The ethics of interaction design

Written on 14 Jan 2015

Recently, Facebook ran an experiment in which they influenced their users' behaviour. On its own, this is not remarkable, as every major company with a website or app will perform experiments to optimize revenue and/or user experience. However, Facebook did something other companies don't. Facebook's experimenters changed the content that appeared in people's Facebook News Feeds to influence their emotional states, making some people feel negative emotions.

Facebook never asked users' consent for this emotional manipulation. When PNAS published the article, it caused a stream of outrage in the media, like these in Forbes, The New York Times, and Wired.

While the folks at Facebook have done some questionable things before, they definitely crossed an ethical line with this incident. But Facebook is not the only company that pushes ethical boundaries., an online marketplace for hotels, created a false sense of scarcity for many customers by falsely saying that other people are looking at the same room or that a room was the last one available. showcases hotel rooms, and they used to tell visitors that one or more other people were looking at the same room at the same time. have corrected this, but only after being officially reprimanded by Dutch authorities.

I could continue with even more examples, because there are plenty, but these say enough. The point is that we often disregard ethics while designing interactions, especially online. But why? Do we really think users are less important than money?

Taking responsibility

Questionalbe practices over the years:

The website keeps a good list of ethically questionable practices.

I have been an interaction designer for a few years now and have struggled with these questions myself. I was asked to design and build things that could and often were used for questionable purposes. At one point I decided that I needed to find my own personal line between ethical and unethical.

I started with the basic question: "How do I like to be treated?" It's a simple question, I give you that, but a fundamently important one. Do you mind, for instance, if people treat you like shit? I do not like it and would bet that you do not either. Most people do not like to be treated like shit.

From there, I resolved to treat people as decently as I can and give them the basic level of respect everyone deserves. I will do that all the time, even if others demand from me that I should not.

Why it's not easy

I know this sound all very nice in theory, but most of you do not have this luxury of these strong principles. At least, you think you don't.

Lets put it into some perspective. Most interaction designers are directly employed at a company or self employed. Either way, they feel they just need to to what their clients/bosses want them to do. They try to do what is right, but the company still needs to earn money, so the tension is always there.

This is a very delicate balance to maintain. But is it something that deserves to be maintained? Why do you, as a designer, maintain it? Is it because you prefer not to cross your employers and/or are afraid to lose your job? As a designer, you also have a responsibility to advocate the needs of the end-user and therefore sometimes question the demands of the client or your boss. If you do not do this, you are not doing your job, right?

Shades of grey

We may not be testing cosmetics on animals, in a painful manner, or genetically modifying crops. We easily consider these actions as 'bad' or unethical, because they're obvious: they directly hurt living things or the enviroment as a whole, just for our own convenience. These cases are black and white.

Interaction design tends to fall in the grey area, and Stephen Anderson wrote this great article about it a while ago. Unethical interaction design does not hurt people physically, but financially and/or emotionally.

Financially hurting people is usually involves seducing/tricking customer into buying an extra product that they don't need or want. This can be in the form of adding a extra product in someone's basket just before checkout or hiding selected options out of direct view so the user does not notice them. Emotional persuasion methods tend to be more involved and difficult to detect (remember the Facebook experiment?). The point is that, while these practices are mostly grey at best, they are still bad.

Making it right

Nir Eyal, an expert on design for behavior change at Stanford University, goes more in-depth about the various types of user manipulation of users in this post on his blog.

Changing someone's perception is hard, but we are interaction designers, right? We know how to explain complex stuff in smple ways; it's the core of what we do. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

Unethical behaviour hurts the brand

One of the most precious things a company owns is their brand. Would it not be horrible if that got hurt by news getting out that your company mislead clients or customers? That could hurt the company's image terribly and therefore the brand!

Yes, I know that bad publicity can be handled with some clever marketing and spin-doctors, but would it not save money and time to not have to do that? Those marketeers could do better things with their time.

People will like you if they know you're nice

This has to do with brand commitment. It is really simple, if you let the world know about your philosophy about doing business you create a transparency towards the rest of the world. This openness ensures that people will trust your product/services more, because you are open about them. In other words they will be more committed to your brand.

Ethical behaviour leads to business sustainability

Wow? What? Yeah, really it does. Let me explain with an example. When a salesman is trying to sell a product to a client it is easier to sell a product that is decent than a shoddy one. The shoddy one has flaws that need to be hidden (by clever sales pitches or straightout lies), while the decent one does not. In other words if you provide a honest, decent quality product, people will start to use it more easily and with less apprehension. Something that is called a solid user-base.

With this solid user-base or client commitment, a company will be more easy to maintain and therefore be more sustainable.

Employee commitment

Would an employee feel commited to their company if it did questionalbe things? Maybe, but that would just be a appearance they kept. As soon as a better oppurtunity would come along, they would leave. Don't just take my word for it; employee commitment in automotive industries, employee commitment can turn ethics into dollars,(full paper).

An employee needs to feel at home, especially in the case of designers and developers for whom the jobmarket is rather open. An employee also needs to able to feel at home with the company philosophy about doing things. In escence, the company's ethics. The stronger they believe in what the company is trying to do to harder they will work to achieve that goal.


In summary, we designers need to take more responsibility for the ethics of what we do. We don't do it enough, so we're filling the world with nasty schemes and blatant scams.

I know there are several initiatives already going, but somehow I get the impression they never really lifted off (please correct me if I am wrong, because I hope I am). Let this be a start to a better, more ethical world.

If you like to discuss this further, just send me a message via Twitter: @sanstreamed, with the hashtag #UXethics. I will be sure to reply.

Many thanks to:

  • Brian Pag├ín, for being supportive and playing editor (@brianpagan on twitter)
  • Hienadz Drahun, for the constant flow of information. (@HDrahun on twitter)
  • Qonita Shahab, for the many insights and suggestions (@uxqontina on twitter)
  • Stephen Anderson, for sharing his work with me (@stephenanderson on twitter)
  • Floris Kimman and Tatiana Sidorenkova, for playing the devil's advocate ;).

There are many more people I'd like to thank, but the list would just go on and on.