Designing Ethical Experiences: Some Practical Suggestions

April 12, 2008

In the first installment of this series on ethics, I examined the way ethical dilemmas can impact the design of user experiences, describing how one scenario played out in the unfortunate experiences of some social networking service users in 2007. With that cautionary tale as reference, I explored how unresolved conflicts between stakeholders’ values or perspectives frequently manifest themselves as ethical challenges for designers. Looking ahead at the future of UX design, I described fundamental shifts that are occurring in our culture and technology around permeability and centralization. In the future, designers will lead the creation of increasingly multilateral, multidimensional, and co-created experiences. Such integrated experiences could introduce substantial, new potential sources of conflict—thanks to their greater interconnectedness and complexity. Therefore, I suggested this clear imperative in response to this potentially conflicted future: Design must find effective ways of managing conflict, encourage the creation of ethical experiences, and avoid ethically unsatisfactory compromises. Finally, I offered three goals designers must work toward:

  • Create ethical experiences. Ensure the user experiences we create are ethical in every aspect.
  • Focus on design, not mediation. Remove design from the uncomfortable position of acting as an ad-hoc mediator, resolving conflicts between various perspectives and stakeholders—conflicts that get passed down to design for resolution.
  • Make design compromises to solve design problems. Eliminate or at least reduce the practice of making design compromises to resolve external conflicts. Design compromises should resolve design problems, not ethical dilemmas or conflicts between stakeholders.

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Building on this foundation, this article considers how design can achieve these three goals, using a practical ethical framework, and suggests ways of dealing with conflicts that arise during the creation of key artifacts that are common to the UX design cycle.

A Code of Ethics for User Experience?

While formal codes of ethics sanctioned by professional bodies provide guidance to practitioners facing challenging or ambiguous situations in established professions such as medicine, law, and engineering, they are also frequently costly in terms of infrastructure and overhead, take time to develop, change slowly, and necessarily remain general. As an emerging and applied discipline, user experience lacks a well-developed code of ethics that addresses its unique concerns, and it is unlikely that the UX community will undertake the considerable effort necessary to create a professional code of ethics for such a volatile disciplinary space in the near term. For some time to come, there will be no professional ethical code to guide the immediate design decisions of practitioners who face unpredictable and idiosyncratic situations with ethical dimensions.

Previous articles addressing the ethical questions UX designers face within specific disciplines or situations include Peter Morville’s “The Ethics of Information Architecture” and Adam Greenfield’s “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.” [1, 2] Several professional bodies, including the ACM, UPA, and AIGA, have sanctioned ethical codes. [3, 4, 5] All of these efforts reflect considerable thought and are quite valuable, but they do not provide immediate guidance to UX practitioners facing the new challenges of multilateral, multidimensional, and co-created user experiences.

Reframing Ethics

Thankfully, successfully addressing ethical challenges during design does not require the creation of a formal or detailed code of ethics—or the creation of a professional body that would sustain such an effort. Designers can use the fact that ethical questions often appear first in the form of conflicts—in values, goals, mental models, or otherwise—to manage ethical dilemmas as simply another form of conflict. Further, we can treat conflict as a natural, though often unexplored element of the larger context user experience always seeks to understand. With this framing, conflict becomes a new layer of integrated experiences—a layer that encompasses ethical dilemmas. We can pragmatically incorporate this new layer of ethical dilemmas into our existing frameworks for user experience. Figure 1 shows how we might incorporate conflict in the classic Venn diagram representing the concerns of information architecture.

Figure 1—Ethical conflict as an aspect of integrated experiences
Ethical conflict as an aspect of integrated experiences

This simplified framing of ethical dilemmas offers substantial advantages, including

  • the ability to use existing design tools and methods
  • limited disruptions to hard-won stakeholder models for the concerns and boundaries of user experience
  • no additional costs for the creation of specialized design artifacts, deliverables, or narratives

It also allows designers to address and resolve ethical conflicts as they appear naturally throughout the design cycle, by adapting common design methods and tools.

A Four-Step Process

A straightforward process for resolving conflicts as they arise might look like the following four-step process:

  • Discover—When a conflict arises, identify the sources of the conflict in terms of ethical or other affected values—for example, privacy laws and preferences—as well as all of the affected parties.
  • Understand—Explore the implications of conflicts that impact ethical, legal, experiential, business, and design considerations, as well as the tradeoffs and costs versus the benefits of likely compromises.
  • Educate—Share insights and understanding with all relevant stakeholders.
  • Resolve—Identify resolution strategies and possible compromises, then using agreed on resolution mechanisms, resolve the identified conflicts before making design decisions.

The Missing Ingredient

The majority of UX methods in use today simply do not directly address conflict as a typical element of context. None of the following insightful and valuable approaches, methods, or perspectives directly considers and represents conflict as a driver for design:

  • elements of user experience
  • emotional design
  • forces of user experience
  • experience design
  • design maturity model
  • making meaning
  • user-centered design
  • user experience honeycomb
  • user-centric design
  • contextual design
  • activity-centered design
  • participatory design

Of course, many designers address conflict informally. (How else could design efforts move forward, since life is always messy and full of gray areas?) And it is all too easy to over-rate the benefits of formality and choose process for the sake of process. But given the growing range of ethical and moral questions inherent in the integrated user experiences of the future, it is clearly time for design to deliberately take ethical conflict into account.

Addressing Conflict

We need a practical approach to addressing conflict that supports the four-step process I described earlier, without disrupting any carefully defined design methodologies or cycles. One practical approach to addressing conflict is to document any discovered conflicts within the familiar UX design artifacts or documents we already use. This has the advantage of enhancing what the artifact or document already accomplishes by communicating conflicts, while leaving the question of how that document comes into existence to the particulars of your methodology, team, client, design tool, problem type, skills, resources, and so on. Conflict-aware design documents can do double duty, serving as guides that focus any activities with the aim of understanding, educating, and resolving conflicts, in addition to accomplishing their regular goals.

Communicating Design, Dan Brown’s recent book, includes excellent discussions of how and when to create many common design documents. While Communicating Design focuses on a subset of design artifacts that are closely associated with Web sites and applications, the full range of UX problems that design documents must address is much broader in scope. However, the book’s key notion that each design document comprises three conceptual layers is a useful framework that can help designers choose the best way of communicating conflict.

According to Brown, each design document is made up of the following conceptual layers: [6]

  • The first layer captures the most important elements of the document.
  • The second layer enhances the message, provides background information, or adds detail to the relationships the document defines.
  • The third layer links the document to its larger context in the design effort, frequently by cross-referencing with other artifacts.

You might choose to represent conflict via words, pictures, illustrations, photos, overlays, annotations, or all of the above and do so at any of the three conceptual layers. I suggest the following guidelines for layering ethical conflict into a design document:

  • When the primary purpose of a document is to resolve discovered conflicts, conflict is part of the first conceptual layer.
  • When a document includes information about conflict, but has another purpose as its primary purpose, conflict corresponds to the second conceptual layer.
  • When a document merely refers to conflict another document has communicated, conflict is part of the third layer.

Conflict-Aware User Experience Documents

Any common artifact documenting the user experience allows room for communicating conflict. Let’s look at some common UX documents, considering some ways conflict might appear in them, as well as possible conflict-resolution strategies. This is, of course, only a small subset of the possible range of UX artifacts. However, these artifacts cover some of the most conflict-prone and sensitive portions of the design cycle, and you can easily reuse the conflict-resolution mechanisms I’m suggesting in other settings.

What’s Not Included

Ordinary design challenges do not constitute conflicts that require resolution—challenges such as how to assemble diverse visual elements together into a coordinated whole that creates a desired experience or balancing needs for information delivery with physical limits on human cognition or synthesizing a common interaction design flow that sustains disparate purposes and goals. Often sources of remarkable design inspiration and beauty arise in the face of great difficulty. Such challenges are exactly the situations that design is meant to address with confidence and authority. For designers, this is our home turf.

And be careful not to confuse conflict resolution with the natural exploration and resolution of design problems. For example, prototyping or conceptualization activities using low-fidelity or mid-fidelity visual representations such as sketchboards, concept screens, wireframes, schematics, or key frames is something that should happen in the course of almost any user experience effort. What these prototypes include, how they’re created, the form they take, the effort invested, and the detail they convey can vary tremendously, but none of this variation indicates the presence of real conflict in values or goals or any ensuing ethical dilemmas.

Business and Stakeholder Requirements

Commonly defined during the vision stage of the design cycle, business and stakeholder requirements translate business needs into aspects and capabilities of the design, solution, product, or experience. Conflicts at this stage indicate deep problems that may require resolution outside the context of a design effort. It’s unwise to design something when the business cannot agree on its purpose. The following suggestions address conflicts at this level of an enterprise:

  • Map conflicts back to defined business strategies and goals.
  • Set aside any requirements that engender conflict as either tentative, potential, or not material to design purposes.

Design Vision and Themes

Sometimes taking the form of talking points, these descriptions, ideas, or themes distill the most important aspects and goals for user experience as a whole, allowing stakeholders to endorse and communicate a shared vision. Conflicting ideas, descriptions, or attributes in the overall vision reflect fundamental problems that require resolution before moving forward. To resolve such conflicts, do the following:

  • Prioritize all elements according to their importance to the overall vision, ranking them or scoring them using simple criteria. Do not score or rank conflicted elements.
  • Identify conflicting elements and set them aside.
  • When two elements conflict directly, require stakeholders to choose only one of them.
  • When multiple elements conflict, require stakeholders to:
    • Treat conflicting elements as optional. Does the proposed design work without them? If so, set all conflicting elements aside for future consideration.
    • Use a Delphi process to resolve conflicting elements.
    • Require unanimous agreement among all stakeholders to include any individual elements.
    • Require unanimous agreement from all stakeholders that the collected elements are those which are essential to the product vision and adequate to users’ needs.


Snapshots of the people the design will satisfy or consider, personas provide considerable opportunity for capturing and managing conflict. Here are some suggestions:

  • Prioritize all personas based on business goals and other relevant factors.
  • Identify and call out conflicts for each persona.
  • Identify any personas that are associated with conflicts. Set them aside, then prioritize the remaining personas relative to each other.
  • Compare the priorities before and after. Large differences indicate personas that may not be essential.
  • Enumerate any individual attributes that conflict. When personas share a conflicted attribute, strike the attribute from further consideration in the design.
  • Map the persona landscape as a family tree or circle, identifying relationships and conflicts with other personas.
  • Remove all personas with more than a maximum number of conflicted relationships.
  • Set a threshold for the number of personas that are associated with conflicts you should consider.
  • Reject personas that are associated with conflicts one at a time, beginning with the lowest priority personas, until you exceed the threshold.

User Goals and Needs Matrices

User goals and needs matrices are good for structuring input from discovery interviews, design ethnography, and other sorts of open-ended, qualitative user research and customer insight methods. They help spot bottom-up patterns and add visual power to primarily verbal material. Try this approach:

  • Identify instances of direct conflict between individual goals—some may conflict across all types of users.
  • Identify instances of conflict between types of users, noting conflicts between their unique goals.
  • Score the severity of any conflicts on a simple 1-to-5 scale to highlight trouble spots. Set thresholds for how much conflict is acceptable. (Yes, this is the Cosmo quiz approach, but it is useful.)
  • Total the number of conflicts that are associated with each goal. Above a certain threshold, set the goal aside and consider addressing it with another design solution.
  • Total the number of conflicts that are associated with each user type. Above a certain threshold, set the user type aside and consider addressing it with another design solution.
  • Total the degree of conflict that is associated with each goal. If a goal has too a high a level of conflict, set it aside. Problematic goals might be better met by another design solution.
  • Total the degree of conflict that is associated with each user type. If a user type has too a high a level of conflict, set it aside. Problematic user types might be better served by another design solution.
  • Compare the level of conflict associated with each user type to their relative priority. Reject user types that have high conflict scores and are lower priorities. For user types that are high priorities, but have high conflict scores, set them aside and consider providing another design solution.


The flexibility and easily understood narrative structure of scenarios makes them a powerful tool for use throughout the design cycle. These suggestions for resolving conflicts make use of these strengths:

  • Identify scenarios that contain internal conflicts—for example, conflicts between different personas, the goals and needs of a single persona, or the environment and the relevant personas.
  • When conflicts across several scenarios are rooted in a single business process, experience, goal, or other element, remove it from the pool of elements, then rewrite the scenarios to reflect its absence. If the gestalt is still coherent, set the element aside to be addressed later.
  • Identify and cross-reference all scenarios that conflict with any other scenarios in terms of outcome, or end state, or starting conditions. Heavily conflicted scenarios point to overlapping intersections of unbalanced needs and goals, concepts, mental models, or other motivators.
  • Create scenarios that focus on and relate the root causes of conflicts in terms of values or experiences for the affected personas, instead of framing them from the business point of view.
  • When conflicts across several scenarios are rooted in a single persona, consider removing the conflicted persona from the expected audience for the design solution.
  • Compare scenarios that depict or describe a future state for an envisioned solution, product, or process. When scenarios conflict, use a Delphi process to recreate them and resolve conflicts.

Functional Requirements

Functional requirements benefit from enormous amounts of professional attention in many venues, so I’ll suggest only a few mechanisms for resolving conflicts in the requirements themselves. To manage conflict, try the following:

  • Cross-reference conflicting requirements by owner or sponsor. Require owners or sponsors to negotiate conflicts independently.
  • Narrow the funnel. Reduce the number of allowed conflicts at successive revisions of the collected requirements.
  • Auction off a very limited set of conflict slots, allowing owners to bid on requirements with a fixed number of points. Reduce the number of conflict slots that are available in each succeeding version of the functional requirements.

Concept Models

Concept models define key conceptual objects and relationships. Conflicts in the concept model indicate important trouble spots in the overall picture of the user experience. To manage conflict, you can do the following:

  • Begin with a single, simplified conceptual model. Set aside any elements that inspire conflict either through their definition or their relationships.
  • Create additional models to capture different viewpoints.
  • Compare the amount of conflict inherent in each model, and choose a single model that you’ll move forward with.
  • List contested elements or concepts and rank them in order of priority. Set aside all conflicted elements below a certain threshold.
  • Remove all conflicted elements. Set a threshold for the number of conflicted elements the design can accommodate.
  • Replace conflicted elements one a time, in order of priority, beginning with the highest ranking, until you exceed the threshold.
  • Remove all instances of conflicted relationships, assigning each a priority.
  • Replace conflicted relationships one a time, in order of priority, beginning with the highest ranking, until you exceed the threshold.

Mental Models

Mental models capture the mental geography or landscape for the experience. Many of the conflict management methods I’ve suggested for concept models apply equally well to mental models.

Site Maps or Structures

Site maps summarize structure and flow through an information space or virtual environment. To manage structural conflicts, you can:

  • Compare and contrast conflicting high-level structures.
  • Build modularly, highlighting areas of conflict.
  • Document conflicts in navigation models separately.
  • Flag conflicts within a content structure and in the detailed information you’ve provided in other artifacts such as topic maps, taxonomies, and so on.
  • Provide cross-references to alternative functional interactions and flows in use cases and process flows.

Wireframes, Schematics, and Key Frames

Conflicts that manifest at this stage of a design effort typically reflect deeper ambiguity or ambivalence about the expected functionality, the necessary emotional dimensions of a user experience, or other upstream design decisions rather than the customary challenges that information design, interaction design, and information architecture face in designing high-quality user experiences.

At best, wireframes and schematics can serve as vehicles for managing upstream conflicts by proxy, allowing exploration and selection from among variations on the presentation, structure, layout, or content of one segment—a screen, a page, or a control state—in a user experience.

Persistent Conflicts

No matter the level of fidelity and specificity they embody, design artifacts function as a snapshot of the current state of the many ongoing dialogues and relationships that make up a design effort—between members of the design team, customers and the business, designers and users, designers and technology, designers and the business, and so on. These dialogues often incorporate conflict, but the goal is always conflict resolution that allows the design to move forward.

New conflicts can and likely will arise as the design effort moves forward toward greater detail and specificity—for example, from vision, to detailed capture of user needs, to task-specific interaction flows, and to the labeling of individual navigation choices. Encountering new conflicts is natural, and it’s good to discover them as early as possible. Examine each new conflict carefully. The same conflicts should not reappear once you’ve resolved them.

When a conflict persists, it is not resolved. Design cannot move forward with confidence. Persistent conflict is a warning flag that indicates possible ethical dilemmas in the eventual user experience. On a deeper level, either the consistent reappearance of previously resolved conflicts or the reassertion of unresolved conflicts can indicate that the design method or approach—or the team of stakeholders involved or the design organization itself—is flawed.

Ethics Over the Long Term

The goals of designers facing ethical challenges and conflicted situations are simple: We must ensure that we create ethical experiences, prevent design from playing the role of an ad-hoc mediator for resolving external conflicts, and reduce the number of design compromises we make to satisfy external conflicts. Treating ethical issues as conflicts—and conflict as a layer of integrated experiences—is a practical strategy for achieving these goals. This strategy lets designers frame the question of ethics within existing perspectives and methods for UX design. This approach—and the accompanying suggestions for both a conflict-resolution process and techniques for managing conflict during the creation of specific types of design documents—should equip designers who face ethical dilemmas with the beginnings of a toolkit for navigating the troubled waters that may lie ahead.

Framing ethical dilemmas as conflicts requiring resolution may provide us with a workable solution to the question of how to create ethical experiences only for the near term. The increasing complexity—ethical and otherwise—of designing integrated experiences might quickly overwhelm the utility of this approach. However, I hope these techniques will provide designers with some practical assistance and open opportunities for choosing better solutions for the ethical questions inherent in integrated experiences over the long term. 


[1] Morville, Peter. “The Ethics of Information Architecture.” Strange Connections. Retrieved May 18, 2007.

[2] Greenfield, Adam. “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.” Boxes and Arrows, December 1, 2004. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

[3] Association for Computing Machinery. “Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.” Association for Computing Machinery. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

[4] Usability Professionals Association. “Code of Conduct.” Usability Professionals Association. Retrieved February 11, 2008.

[5] American Institute of Graphic Arts. “Standards of Professional Practice.” American Institute of Graphic Arts. Retrieved February 11, 2008

[6] Brown, Daniel. Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2007.

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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