How to make ethics visible through design

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Ethics through design


Trilateral Research

Date: 3 October 2018

Ethics is not a ‘thing’ to be designed into a technology or into data analytics because ethics are enacted, in situ, in context.

Designing in ways that encourage ethical outcomes requires thinking critically about what the design work is doing. Privacy by design is a very good tool to start with, but even this requires designers to step back and think fundamentally about what privacy is doing, what it offers, and how it is a good. There is no single recipe that can always be followed.

For example, in some situations analysing neighbourhood data by race is a form of ensuring justice, in others, it is a form of profiling and bias.

Even with the GDPR aiming to create greater conformity in privacy practices within Europe, how privacy creates goods is still not obvious. For example, privacy can ensure the liberty to practice whatever religion you want in your own home. But it can also foster inequality and a loss of dignity by forcing those with certain identities out of public spaces, turning privacy into somewhat of a closet.

To help make these complexities and their contested nature visible and approachable, Katrina Petersen, Senior Research Analyst at Trilateral, alongside colleagues at Lancaster University and have been exploring what kinds of reflexive questions can help.

Design serves society

  • What do you define as the public good you are making?
  • What do you define as ethical design?
  • Who (else) are these public goods and ethical designs for? 

Answers to this set of questions require explicit statements about what good is being made and who that good is intended to serve. They encourage designers to think about the effects of their approaches to ethical principles (e.g. autonomy, dignity, justice, equality) and why certain principles are shaping their design decisions.

For example, while neutrality is a humanitarian principle, historically what it means to be neutral has played out in different ways. Some have interpreted it as not stepping in to help the oppressed in authoritarian regimes because that would involve picking a side, while others have interpreted it as making sure all are given equal opportunities, even if that means providing aide differently to different communities. What makes good here is nuanced: to treat everyone the same? to support those in need? to produce fair results?

Being explicit can help make sure that different versions do not compete with each other or collide with the context of application.

Ethics through design

Technology is not neutral

  • Who has the right/responsibility to say what is good?
  • What is your right as a designer in terms of making a societal change or better?

This set of questions speaks to the power and privilege a designer might have in doing and defining good for others.

A negative aspect to the questions above, they force those designing to consider their active role in shaping society, beyond just considering after-the-fact the implications that become visible after use. They remove the ability to say technology is neutral or to say that it is up to the users to ensure a design is ethical. They can help designers think critically about their work, see when they might not be the right people for the job, or choose between different possible design trajectories.

In some cases, the answers become: “I don’t have that right to say what is good for my user” but “I do have the responsibility to make sure good is done”.

Asking these questions can help see when the design process needs to involve others, and who that might be. Answers can help define who should be consulted, when participatory methods might be beneficial, and what kinds of features beyond technological requirements needs to be accounted for along the way.

The Who, the When, the How and the Why will almost certainly open a Pandora’s box of nuances and differences around the design table. But as technology is increasingly acknowledged to carry societal values, asking questions about ethics through design can also ensure a clear, explicit, and transparent vision for intended outcomes.


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