Ethical Design is a term often used by various people in the past year and now even predicted as a trend for 2018. Interestingly, when you read more about what it means you get a variety of responses. It lasts from the user experience over sustainability to business concepts. And in fact, it’s a mixture of all and cannot be a trend—instead it must be a requirement for us as human beings.
When we meet with our friends or close family members we want to be sure that we trust each other. This trust implies a lot of things: We imply that people don’t share the private communication with other people, we imply that the person I talk with tries to understand my position and will try to help me if I ask for help. We try to make things easier for each other and to eliminate and reduce blockers where and whenever possible.
Strangely, we show different behaviour at work. Suddenly, we discredit colleagues, we don’t value or trust their work, we envy their jobs, and we moan to everyone that we don’t get enough money and the job we do is too hard.
Employers on the other hand contribute their part to this phenomenon: They don’t make salaries public, they often don’t embrace communication, working together as a team, being open about business details and almost always fail at eliminating jealousy and mistrust between colleagues.
At work, we suddenly value ourselves much more than those who make use of our work. The biggest goal is to make life easier for us, with the effect that the people we work for, the people that buy products of the companies we work for are getting a worse product than possible. It’s important to us that we have a job that is as convenient as possible.
Seeing that the results are often unbearable when we are the ones who suffer from other people’s laziness lead people to rethink this pattern. That’s when “ethical design” became a term. When we objectively consider how helpful our work is to the people around us many of us realise that we could do much better work. The laziness, the selfishness suddenly becomes clearly visible and we notice that this is not what we wanted to do in our life.
But now comes the hard part—making a change, an impact that makes us happy at work again, something that shows that we’re doing something good at work, contribute to help other people in life is hard and often not a clear path. And this is where ethical design as a term gets confusing. It’s not about design by designers but about applying ethical decisions to a job. It affects everyone, yet not everyone has the choice to apply their ethical decisions to their job.
Today we can often hear that everyone can get the job they’re dreaming about. Yet, with people striving for a YouTube career, with people who live in real poverty this is simply not true. Not everyone will be able to be a successful YouTuber and it’s super hard and often requires privilege and connections to get there. Not everyone will be able to choose the job they can get—if you don’t have enough money to buy your daily food and water, you’ll not be in a position to be picky about the type of work you can do.
But there are ways to apply ethic decisions anyway—in any job. And those of us who work in a privileged job have the privilege to apply ethical decisions at a greater level.
So what does ethical design mean?
As company owners we can encourage our colleagues, our partners and our employees to work closer together. We should build a business out of people’s needs not to make profit from them without giving them back a real value. We should have the environment in mind for our business plan because without a working environment humans won’t be able to buy our products anymore. We should want to build businesses that last, businesses that are valued by customers and embraced. And we should build businesses with employees who are happy to work for us and don’t work alone for the money but see value in what they do. Let’s care about our business—our clients and employees are everything we have.
As people who work on a product we can influence the how. It’s up to us to implement solutions and we can question it. We can ask the right questions to challenge whether it’s a good idea to do that or whether we can do it differently. When we see an issue, we can raise it. Never assume that those who suggested a solution or write a task know everything. Very often, it happens that people writing tasks don’t know much about the implications of the task, the effort it takes versus the value it has. If we have evidence that there is a better solution, that a task doesn’t seem useful, we must challenge it. Talking about it with a colleague, finding a better solution—there are a variety of options to really improve a product instead of following the task. If we do it right, the people who give us the tasks will value our efforts, they will be happy to have learned something, to get better at their job.
Whether we improve a website’s performance, fix the markup to be accessible, to be cleaner, to be more maintainable, reduce page load to cut server costs, rethink a marketing campaign’s wording to be inclusive and non-discriminating, sell a product honestly—it all boils down to more happiness for us. As human being we want to be respected, we want to be valued, and we want to have friends. We can achieve this only by contributing to this, by seeking value in what we do. And what we do is work. If our work is successful, helps other people we will be rewarded—with respect, value, friendship, appreciation and a salary.
Ethical design means applying our ethics, our personality to what we do. Let’s do this. All together.
Anselm is founder of Colloq, freelance frontend developer and publishes an industry-leading web development newsletter.