UC Irvine: Exploring Design and Ethics

Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

User Experience design is a field that emphasizes working with and understanding people. As a designer, I make a priority to pursue knowledge from other designers and fields. With COVID19, this task has become easier due to various designer groups and organizations opening their meetings to people outside of their geographical areas. Through platforms like Meetup and Eventbrite, I can connect with experienced designers. One such event was UC Irvine: Exploring Design an Ethics.

This event, led by keynote speaker and moderator, John B. Johnson, was a great event for new and experienced designers to discuss the importances of ethics in design. In his introduction, John B. Jonson quoted IDEO as he explained design thinking as “a way of seeing the world.” With the inclusion of his own experience with equity and individual choice, John B. Johnson starts the panel by emphasizing the importance of recognizing the difference in access to and understanding of empathy, strategy skills, design education and other key traits and information needed for success in design.

Following his introduction, John moderated a panel of experienced designers in a discussion of design and ethics. The panel included the following individuals:

Leonard De La Rocha: Director of Intuit Design

Anne Piper: Professor, Department of Informatics at UC Irvine

William Ntim: Sr. UX Designer at Home Depot

Tricia Choi: Director at Design Systems at Twitch

David Hildebrand: Head of Design for Payments, Identity and Integrity at Lyft

The questions asked throughout the event were both thought-provoking and eye-opening to my own beliefs and understanding of design and ethics. Coming from a background in Marketing and experience in designing for various startups and non-profits, I have found myself in positions where I needed to advocate for users. Therefore, I found myself learning from the panelists as well as answering some of the panelist questions for myself.

Question: What is your motivator as a designer and why?

Many of the designers shared similar thoughts in their motivations. A powerful benefit in design is the opportunity to empower others. Similarly, I was led to a career in design through a desire to help users accomplish goals with autonomy, efficiency, and (if possible) enjoyability.

Following this question, the panelists gave their advice in how to open conversations regarding design ethics within an organization. De La Rocha started with advising designers to take advantage of what is already working within the organization and start conversations about design ethics. Hildebrand continued with those sentiments and added the importance of consistency. Choi shared similar thoughts and emphasized the benefit of using existing frameworks and people. Hosting guilds and bookclubs are great opportunities to open conversations about ethics and design.

Question: What does “ethics” mean to you?

To Choi, ethics means cultivating empathy and “finding your blind spot.” De La Rocha referenced the Designer Manager at Facebook, Beth Dean, when talking about ethics involving emotional intelligence.

Similar to the panelists, I believe ethics is closely tied to emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is comprised of 5 parts:

  1. Self-awareness: the ability to recognize and understand your own emotions
  2. Self-regulation: expressing your emotions appropriately
  3. Social skills: being able to interact well with others
  4. Empathy: the ability to understand how others are feeling
  5. Intrinsic motivation: being motivated by things beyond external rewards like fame, money, recognition, and acclaim.

Empathy is a staple term in design, but all five parts of emotional intelligence is needed to succeed in designing ethically.

Question: How do you push design ethics when your company’s main goals are KPI’s?

Ntim acknowledged the importance of understanding human-computer interaction and psychology as a designer. Simultaneously, he emphasized the importance of addressing both the needs of the user and the business. He states, “design is a responsibility.” Choi added by suggesting to designers to try to exceed business goals by meeting user needs. Once those needs are met or discovered, designers should use storytelling to convey their research to stakeholders.

This is a question that I have faced numerous times, especially with startups and new organizations. The need to grow is often a top priority for newer businesses and organizations. Although this goal is understandable, far too often, organizations and businesses forget or ignore the needs of the their target audiences when developing business and design strategies objectives.

As a designer, I use both research and storytelling, as mentioned by Choi, to represent the user in discussions. As I’ve said to the team that I lead as a Market Researcher, it is important to understand how to speak the language of stakeholders. Some stakeholders respond best to KPIs and statistics while others respond best to narratives.

Question: What educational trends are there?

Piper, who works with students in Human-Computer Interaction, discussed her students’ interests in ethics and jobs. De La Rocha added that the trend/ movement to incorporating ethics in design has extended beyond the classroom. Organizations like Intuit are incorporating more conversations regarding ethics. Some have even created design ethics playbooks. Beyond that, organizations are looking for more than a culture fit. The more progressive organizations are looking for diverse cultures within their organizations.

Although, my experience has primarily involved work as a freelancer and with startups and nonprofits, I recognize the value that this movement will have in design. Technology has great potential in extending accessibility to all and fostering a culture of inclusion and diversity. However, past technological failures show that design and technology are far from fully accessible and inclusive. Stories of racial profiling and AI and interfaces that still lack accessibility features show a continued need to educate others through open and honest conversations regarding ethics.

Question: What needs to change about our current approach to design to avoid further collateral damage?

Hildebrand stated, “We need to be more open and expansive.” While the approach to “getting growth” in the past worked, it is an outdated approach now. Johnson shared a statement by the founder of Twitter who regretted including a followers feature. De La Rocha emphasized the importance of research. Choi suggests designers ask themselves, “Are you creating to encourage or control the user?” The panelists also added the importance of knowing yourself as a designer. Again, this is in-line with the importance of emotional intelligence as a designer.

My following question is: “What do you do after the collateral damage?” Is is possible to go back on a design? There has been talk about Instagram removing the likes display in its platform due to the negative psychological effects of the feature. While this plan has obvious positive effects, is it too late? Businesses and influencers make their livings based on the likes and comments displayed on their profiles. Casual users are simply accustomed to the feature. How can Instagram and other platforms with similar features design ethically while maintaining the features that may have aided to their success?

The panel ended with each panelist sharing their insights with the audience. Advice included the importance of orienting oneself around good questions; developing and maintaining relationships; being authentic which will win in the mid-term and long-term; and operating in what breaks your heart. In addition, below is the list of books suggested by the panelists:

  1. Design Justice
  2. Reflections on the Art of Living
  3. Indestructible by Nir Eyal

My small “nugget” of advice is to never stop learning. Design is constantly changing, and no one is ever “done.” A design can always be improved. A new skill can always be learned. A new insight can always be gained. In regards to a suggested book, I would suggest The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. Although it is not a design book, it is an excellent book for developing and improving oneself and relationships, both personal and professional.

I am a User Experience and User Interface designer with a past life as a pro track and field athlete and author. Read my novel SPRINT DREAMS on Amazon.

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