Designing Ethical Experiences: Social Media and the Conflicted Future

February 11, 2008

“Ethical dilemmas occur when values are in conflict.”

From the American Library Association Code of Ethics [1]

Questions of ethics and conflict can seem far removed from the daily work of user experience (UX) designers who are trying to develop insights into people’s needs, understand their outlooks, and design with empathy for their concerns [2]. In fact, the converse is true: When conflicts between businesses and customers—or any groups of stakeholders—remain unresolved, UX practitioners frequently find themselves facing ethical dilemmas, searching for design compromises that satisfy competing camps. This dynamic is the essential pattern by which conflicts in goals and perspectives become ethical concerns for UX designers. Unchecked, it can lead to the creation of unethical experiences that are hostile to users—the very people most designers work hard to benefit—and damaging to the reputations and brand identities of the businesses responsible.

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Please Restore My Privacy, Dignity, and Reputation

“Privacy and ownership of information are at the core of the social graph issues. Much like there is a conflict of interest around attention information between online retailers and users, there is a mismatch between what individuals and companies want from social networks. When any social network starts, it is hungry to leverage other networks…. But as individuals, we do not care about either young or old networks. We care about ease of use and privacy.”

Alex Iskold, Read/Write Web [3]

The use of controversial membership and invitation practices by social networking site during the spring of 2007 exemplified the way ethical conflict affects design and highlighted how compromises in decisions that affect user experience can create unexpected ethical consequences. The brouhaha generated demonstrated the power of network mechanisms to serve as experience amplifiers, by affecting many interconnected people, and inspired considerable ill-will among members and non-members alike. Figure 1 shows is certainly not the only business venture in the crowded social networking space to experiment with questionable registration mechanisms, as the example of showed just a few months later. However, recounting the experiences of members offers good qualitative insights into ways conflicting perspectives can result in ethical challenges for UX design and [4].

Figure 1—

In May of 2007, along with many others, I received a flurry of email invitations, urging me to join a new social networking site called Ostensibly from colleagues or friends, these invitations invariably read, “Simon has added you as a friend on Tagged. Is Simon your friend? Please respond, or Simon may think you said no.” In retrospect, it is easy to see how these invitations made a play for our emotions, relying on the natural inclination to acknowledge someone we know by name. Waves of similar pseudo-personal invitations spread rapidly, appearing in my inbox and on public and private mailing lists, as well as on corporate and public bulletin boards and community discussion forums. This phenomenon touched every area of the social Web in one way or another.

Strangely, waves of personal email messages followed the invitations from Tagged, bringing apologies and warnings from the same colleagues or friends who had ostensibly sent the original invitations. A growing number of bulletins advised everyone to disregard any invitation received from, especially those that seemed to come from a friend, and warned of proliferating spam invitations, address book harvesting, and privacy violations. The contrast between the genuinely personal warning messages, and the generic, but seemingly personal invitations was striking.

Here are some email messages that relate the experiences of UX design professionals on A sample email apology from a colleague:

From: Anonymous ‹[email protected]
Date: May 5, 2007 4:38 PM
Subject: Re: Anonymous has Tagged you! :)
To: Joe Lamantia ‹[email protected]

Hi Joe

Sorry about this email—it was not sent intentionally by me and you should ignore it. *Definitely do not visit*


The following warning message, from another friend and new member, specifically mentions the user experience of the registration process and how it helped fool him.

From: Anonymous ‹[email protected]
Date: May 5, 2007 4:38 PM
Subject: Re: Anonymous has Tagged you! :)
To: Joe Lamantia ‹[email protected]

Ouch. I’m really sorry about that.

I got an invite from someone and then went through the registration process, which checks your contacts from Gmail as part of the registration funnel and allows you to add users in your contacts.

Little did I know that below the fold, it included every email recipient from my Gmail, so when I clicked submit, it sent to every contact in my Gmail account including all my email lists.

How embarrassing for me. ( I should have read the copy on the page first.)

Sorry again.

Note—The emphasis is mine. The author received all email transcriptions either directly from people who registered for and requested anonymity or second hand from others.

How embarrassing indeed, especially since canceling a newly registered account did not stop the flood of outbound invitation emails. The experience was socially so painful, it prompted people caught up in the process to contact repeatedly and insist the service stop sending out invitations under their names.

This is one such cease-and-desist message, shared by another colleague who was a new member:

From: Anonymous ‹[email protected]
Date: May 8, 2007 1:59 PM
To: customer service ‹[email protected]

Hi—When I signed up for, you fooled me into giving you all the email addresses in my Gmail address book. Now all 783 contacts appear to be getting emails even though I cancelled my account.



Eight hundred spammed contacts means quite a few email apologies! Yet while this was happening, received strong praise from leading technology and Web 2.0 media outlets for successfully recruiting so many new members in the crowded social networking marketplace. On May 9th, for example, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch wrote a brief article titled, “ Turns Profitable—May Be Fastest Growing Social Network.” It read:

“Tagged is also very aggressive with signing up new users. At registration, users are strongly encouraged to invite their entire address book as friends. It’s a highly viral, albeit controversial, way to quickly add lots of new users.” [5]

“Aggressive,” “highly viral,” and “controversial” sound more like a new and highly contagious disease than a networking service. (And “strongly encouraged” is always an ominous choice of words when describing something supposedly voluntary and positive.) did respond to some of these urgent cease-and-desist messages. This is a reply to the message above, sent by a customer service representative:

From: customer service ‹[email protected]
Date: May 8, 2007 1:59 PM
To: Anonymous ‹[email protected]


Thank you for contacting Tagged.

We have removed your invitations. We apologize for the inconvenience we have caused you and your friends. If you need help with anything else please let us know.


Customer Support

Is this an inconvenience? Or is it unethical—a violation of privacy and other rights? That depends on how you look at things.

Perspectives in Conflict

I asked friends and colleagues about the experience of registering for, only to realize that the service was mining their personal address books to broadcast disingenuous invitations. Responses ranged from deeply embarrassed to incensed by the damage this caused to delicate and valuable social networks, as you can see in the following examples.

From: Anonymous ‹[email protected]
Date: September 13, 2007 10:34:28 AM EDT
To: “Joe Lamantia“ ‹[email protected]
Subject: Re: email address harvesting

Ugh. Don’t make me relive that experience. The funny thing is that most of the Facebook apps that I’m installing these days feature the opt out method of inviting your friends; e.g., the flixter quiz.

…If you publish anything about this, I would appreciate if you not mention me by name, for obvious reasons.


Here’s an excerpt from another message:

“What happened next was nightmarish. My inbox started filling up with auto-responses, since tagged was basically emailing everyone and everything in my inbox.

“Emails were sent to prospective employers, jeopardizing my job prospects with them. Emails were also sent to old girlfriends, some of whom responded quite angrily. Emails were sent to professional colleagues, some of whom will be listening to the very presentation you are giving.

“I must’ve sent over a 100 personal responses to people apologizing profusely and explaining that the email was not sent intentionally.”

In the case of, one might easily have forgiven a few misdirected invitations, but 800 indiscriminate solicitations could amount to considerable damage to one’s professional and personal social networks. In addition to privacy violations—who wants their contact information shared involuntarily—there were the costs of public and private embarrassment, possible damage to one’s professional and personal reputations, and unknown future costs from lost opportunities.

Changing the scale from the individual to the group level, we can see that many of these contacts were posting addresses for mailing lists, bulletin boards, communities, or forums. The amplifying nature of network mechanisms—the ripple effect—meant literally thousands of people were affected each time an invitation went out. The ripple effect changed the quality of the damage to the collective social fabric as well as increasing the number of people affected. The perceived value of a mailing list, community, or forum that is subject to spamming declines very quickly, as anyone with a clogged inbox knows. (Recognizing this, list administrators for groups affected by reacted quickly to invitations from, issuing warnings right away.)

Figure 2—The ripple effect
Ripple effect

However, saw the results of its design decisions regarding its registration process as largely positive—at least initially—from a business perspective. benefited from rapidly growing membership and activity rolls; increases in usage, traffic, and exposure; lowered customer acquisition costs; potential profitability; perceived advantages versus current or potential competitors; and positive endorsement from influential media. For startups with unproven business models and value propositions, these sorts of accomplishments represent steps toward validation and legitimacy and often serve as the essential criteria for financial and business survival. Under these circumstances, the temptations to accelerate growth by cutting ethical corners can be profound.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that, in those instances where customer and community needs—such as the value and importance of preserving privacy, voluntary disclosure of information, and respect for the nuances and boundaries of complex, real-life relationships—came into conflict with business pressures to register new members quickly and gather intelligence about their social networks by capturing their social graphs, decided to favor the business agenda and sacrifice ethical integrity by designing an effective harvesting experience.

Design in the Middle

The people who registered for certainly bear some responsibility. After all, they signed up with a new and unknown service and chose to share their contact lists. Some of those users have accepted responsibility, as we saw in the email messages they sent out. (Of course, we know users commonly blame themselves for failings in the design of user experiences.)

Many members caught by the business’s sleight of hand quickly agreed that the design of the registration process itself played a central enabling role in the unfortunate drama—including the controls on the signup page, the visibility of the list of harvested contacts, and the placement and treatment of explanatory copy. In their view, used a carefully crafted registration experience to strongly encourage new members to unwittingly allow the service access to the entirety of their collected address books and grant permission for Tagged to send out proxy invitations to every one of their contacts.

It’s evident that designers working for made many decisions when defining the registration experience in a way that unduly favored the business agenda over the values of their customers, to the ethical detriment of all involved. And quite a few of those decisions probably reflect compromises user experience designers made, placing them in the middle of unresolved conflicts between the business and its members over privacy and personal information. As a UX design professional, this is an uncomfortable proposition to think about, even afterward and from the outside—participating on the inside as the matter unfolded must have been very uncomfortable.

A Conflicted Future is just one example. is another. But will this kind of thing happen again? Social networking services like are especially prone to conflicts—thanks to their network mechanisms and the complex, multilateral social dynamics they incorporate. However, conflict is common to social media and social software in general, as a class of designed systems. And thanks to the rapid incorporation of social elements and capabilities such as conversation, sharing, presence, identity, and reputation—that is, social building blocks)—into many kinds of products, services, and experiences designers create, conflicting agendas may become more common [6].

The affects of this social shift appear in the increasingly multilateral nature of the users of new Web applications. In “Designing Web Applications for Use,” Larry Constantine writes:

“A…problem with users is that there are so many of them. And they are all different. They want different things and like different things and react differently. I have watched teams run in circles as they redesign for each new user who gives them feedback on a paper prototype or each new group passing through the usability lab. The genuine diversity of real people can distract designers from the commonality of their needs and interests.” [7]

Each set of people a multilateral user experience addresses can bring a different set of goals, perspectives, mental models, ethical values, framing concepts, language, and vocabulary into play. The possibilities for conflict in these situations are substantial, as Figure 3 demonstrates.

Figure 3—Conflicts between user groups in multilateral experiences
Conflicts between user groups in multilateral experiences

Beyond Web applications and social media, the nature of the user experiences we design is changing profoundly in other ways that will make ethics and conflict more important concerns for the UX practitioners. Many experiences are now multidimensional, bridging the physical and virtual realms and taking on lives that extend far beyond their designers’ original expectations. As succeeding waves of change from ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, geographic information systems (GIS), geolocation, radio-frequency identification (RFID), and the emerging spime (space and time) ecology intersect and gather force, multidimensional user experiences will become more prevalent, greatly expanding the reach and impact of the user experiences we design.

The user experiences we create for one environment often will not work effectively for others, as Figure 4 shows. The various traditional, or pre-integrated, design disciplines such as graphic design, industrial design, textile design, interaction design, user interface design, and so on have their roots in and depend on the now blurring distinctions between environments.

Figure 4—Conflicts across new environments in multidimensional user experiences
Conflicts across new environments in multidimensional user experiences

Co-creation—the decline and fall of traditional entry barriers to the professional creation of media, products, services, businesses, and so on will also greatly expand the reach of experience design culturally and technologically. The involvement of multiple stakeholders in the design of—and likely the eventual ownership of—co-created experiences invokes many more layers of complexity and potential conflict, as Figure 5 shows. The differing interests, rights, and goals of designers, stakeholders, and traditional consumers are already in direct conflict in the creation of media-sharing and other media-focused experiences such as, the iTunes store, and

Figure 5—Conflicts in co-created experiences
Conflicts in co-created experiences

Together, these three shifting conflicts—between user groups, environments, and participants is the co-creation of experiences—mark a movement toward integrated experiences that promise to present new ethical challenges to designers. Looking forward, the accelerating permeation of information technology and computing in many facets of our lives will make the new integrated experiences—and the ethical questions that come with them—part of everyday life for many people around the world.

A Clear Imperative

Given the implications for the future, the imperative is clear: Design must find effective ways of managing these conflicts, encourage the creation of ethical experiences, and avoid ethically unsatisfactory compromises. To guide our responses to this imperative, I propose the following three goals:

  1. Create ethical experiences. Our most important goal in this effort is to ensure the user experiences we create are ethical in every aspect. I am not suggesting anyone knows in advance what ethical means in all cases. I am advocating that we make ethicality an aspect of user experience that we consider, measure, evaluate, monitor, and support during design. Making reference to Peter Morville’s well-known user experience honeycomb, we might add the attribute ethical as a facet of the characteristics we consider [8], as shown in Figure 6. (Determining what is and is not ethical will engender much discussion , but that is not the objective of this article.)
Figure 6—Expanded UX honeycomb
Expanded UX honeycomb
  1. Focus on design, not mediation. A second goal is to remove design from the uncomfortable position of ad hoc mediator for unresolved conflicts between stakeholders and people with other perspectives—conflicts that get passed down to design for resolution.
  2. Make design compromises to resolve design problems. A third goal is to eliminate, or at least reduce, design compromises designers make to satisfy stakeholder conflicts: Design compromises should resolve design problems, not ethical dilemmas or conflicts between stakeholders. User experience should engage all stakeholders in the resolution of conflicts with design implications, before the only possible resolution takes the form of an unsound design compromise that results in an unethical user experience.

The second part of this feature on ethics, “Designing Ethical Experiences: Some Practical Suggestions,” will consider how the UX design community can respond to this imperative and achieve the goals set forth here. Part 2 suggests a pragmatic framing of ethical questions within existing user experience approaches and provides a sequence of practical techniques for resolving conflicts that arise during the creation of standard design artifacts and documentation. 


[1] American Library Association. “Code of Ethics of the American Library Association.” American Library Association, January 22, 2008. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

[2] For the remainder of this discussion, I’ll define a designer as any person making design decisions that shape an aspect of the user experience. This definition encompasses many roles and areas of responsibility, both within and outside the traditional boundaries of user experience disciplines such as information architecture (IA), interaction design (IxD), visual design, UX architecture, business strategy, and so on. Additionally, a user experience comprises all aspects of a system, solution, product, or design that users experience or interact with in some way. I use the terms user experience, experience design, and designer in an inclusive sense, referring to all aspects of these disciplines, as well as the practitioners and stakeholders who participate in design activities.

[3] Iskold, Alex. “Social Graph: Concepts and Issues.” ReadWriteWeb, September 12, 2007. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

[4] See the following for unverified, published accounts related to

Jardin, Xeni. “Quechup Is Rotten: Don’t Accept Invites.” Boingboing, September 4, 2007. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

Cashmore, Pete. “Are You Getting Quechup Spammed? Mashable, September 2, 2007. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

Godin, Seth. “Rancid Bacn.” Seth Godin’s Blog, September 1, 2007. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

[5] Arrington, Michael. “ Turns Profitable—May Be Fastest Growing Social Network.” TechCrunch, May 9, 2007. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

[6] Smith, Gene. “Social Software Building Blocks.” nForm, April 4, 2007. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

[7] Constantine, Larry. “Designing Web Applications for Use.” User Interface Engineering, December 11, 2006. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

[8] Morville, Peter. “User Experience Design.” Semantic Studios, June 21, 2004. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

Head of UX, Commercial Card, at Capital One

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Joe LamantiaA veteran architect, consultant, and designer, Joe has been an active member and leader in the UX community since 1996. He has crafted innovative, successful user experience strategies and solutions for clients ranging from Fortune 100 enterprises to local non-profit organizations, digital product companies, and social media startups, in a wide variety of industries. Joe is the creator of EZSort, the leading, freely available tool for card sorting, as well as the Building Blocks for Portals design framework. He is also a frequent writer and speaker on topics including future directions in user experience; the intersection of business, culture, and design; and systems thinking. Joe is currently based in New York, working as a UX strategy consultant for the enterprise architecture group of a global IT services firm.  Read More

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