Ethical Design: Why Is It Critical for UX Designers?

February 22, 2021

How many times have you seen design solutions that showcased male chauvinist attitudes or marketing content that exhibited racial or gender biases? The content that designers create represents our social thought, values, and culture. Similarly, any product’s design embodies a value system, clearly indicating the designer’s beliefs and moral principles.

While the biases in some design solutions and content are deliberate and unethical, the creators of other designs and content consciously adopt an ethical stance and reject such biases. The intent of a UX designer to design great products that follow moral principles is ethical design.

In this article, I’ll describe how unethical designs occur, as well as explain the concept of ethical design. I’ll also describe how you, as a UX designer, can create change within your company—merely by following the best ethical-design practices.

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The Pervasive Need for Ethical Design

The question of ethical design is relevant for all products, and you can find examples of failures to meet this need across a diverse range of use cases and contexts. For example, a video of two Facebook employees using a soap dispenser in a company washroom went viral on Twitter. The footage revealed that when a white employee used the soap dispenser, he received the soap easily. But when a black employee put his hand under the sensor-driven soap dispenser, he got no soap at all—even after multiple attempts! The reason: the sensor wasn’t able to sense his hand! This is a typical example of how people’s racist biases can impact human-machine interactions if product developers and designers fail to recognize such possibilities.

You’ll find such examples of unethical design across almost every product domain. Racial and gender bias often result from unconscious UX design decisions and content strategies that exhibit various sets of biases. For example, if a toy manufacturer were targeting a mixed-gender audience, why would they show only boys playing with the toy?

You can find such examples everywhere!

The Concept of Ethical Design

Ethics comprise moral principles that dictate what we should and should not do in particular situations. Based on value judgments for good and bad, ethics dictate our duty and obligation to propagate the good and denounce the bad. Thus, ethical design basically means making conscious design decisions that do good and do not harm anyone—either intentionally or unintentionally.

Following ethical principles for content development means avoiding plagiarized or fake content that would detract from a content provider’s value proposition, as well as providing citations and crediting sources for content.

Meeting the ethical parameters for design is comparatively difficult. Consistently applying a moral code when making design decisions requires subtle perceptions of right and wrong. From choosing the skin colors for emojis to common visual metaphors, every wrong design decision can demean certain people, depending on their gender, race, religion, language, or other dimensions of diversity.

Here are some areas on which you need to focus as an ethical UX designer:

  1. Usability—The most significant consideration when designing user experiences is usability, which refers to how efficiently and satisfactorily a user can accomplish a specific goal, using a particular feature, design solution, or product. It is our moral duty is to design interactive user interfaces that are easy to use and, in some cases, that prevent deadly consequences! Remember the false missile threat in Hawaii back in 2018?!
  2. Privacy—As the digital world has expanded at a rapid pace, privacy has become a concern that corresponds to ethical design. Personal information has not remained personal. Big companies and organizations have access to plenty of private data. As UX designers, we are responsible for using this information appropriately. The advantages of using this data include our ability to shape and improve the user experience. Still, we should know where to stop and how much access to users’ data is actually necessary.
  3. Influence—Often, we must influence users’ behavior and thought processes. The boundary between white-hat persuasion and grey-hat or black-hat persuasion sometimes becomes obscured. Persuasion tactics that change users’ perspectives and convince them to buy a specific subscription just to increase conversions are highly unethical.
  4. Sustainability—Have you kept the environment, climate change, and natural resources in mind when designing your product? Sustainability is a significant ethical factor that you must consider. We must foster sustainable consumer conduct to avert overuse!
  5. Society—As UX designers, we must be conscious of our products’ effects on people’s overall mental health. As an ethical designer, you must align your work with the needs of your global and local communities, politics, economies, and people’s health.

The Challenges of Incorporating Ethics in Design

Let me make one thing loud and clear: design ethics are not about making value judgments about anything.

If you work as a UX designer, you might not have the opportunity to participate in such noble initiatives as treating patients in a refugee camp. However, you can still endeavor to be ethical in all that you do when designing a product. Your design solutions don’t need to change the world. All you need to do is align your design decisions with society’s and your industry’s values and beliefs.

For example, when you’re designing a B2B (Business-to-Business) Web site or an enterprise app, your design must focus on business conversions. Nevertheless, despite your adhering to such business and professional objectives, you can perfectly align your design solutions to ethics—for example, by ensuring equity for all genders, races, and ethnic groups.

Balancing your professional goals and moral values when designing user experiences is what ethical design is all about.

Ethical Design Practices

When a page or other content takes a few seconds to load, apps usually display a small animated progress bar or other indicator that represents the loading process. This is a kind of microinteraction that gives users feedback about background tasks and is an excellent example of ethical design. It is unethical for any business to neglect giving users feedback when there are delays.

Twitter’s letting users choose to use dark or white backgrounds is another great example of ethical design. Depending on users’ visual comfort levels and lighting conditions, they can choose their preferred background for the app.

All the buzz about designing superior user experiences, maximizing ease of use, and engineering faster loading times follows the ethics of serving customers better. Respecting customer’s time while avoiding all kinds of discriminatory messaging through your design solutions is what ethical design is all about.


Because the rapid proliferation of digital platforms is now connecting people across all cultures, ethnicities, and age groups, ethical design has become essential. Every digital platform is equally local and global, so you can no longer bring your cultural and geopolitical biases into your UX design decisions.

As a UX designer, you should uphold ethical-design practices in making all design decisions. Ensure that no product design or user-interface elements exhibit discriminatory, abusive, or regressive messages or values. By focusing on ethical design, you can help your company emerge as a truly global brand. 

CMO and Co-founder of IndianAppDevelopers

North Hollywood, California, USA

Juned GhanchiAt IndianAppDevelopers, a top mobile-app development company in India with a dedicated team of iOS and Android developers, Juned focuses on providing mobility solutions that leverage state-of-the-art technologies to startups and the world’s biggest brands alike.  Read More

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