Why Ethics Should Be at the Core of Design Storytelling

July 11, 2022

All UX professionals are storytellers. Whether we’re describing a user’s journey or explaining our thought process and choices in designing a product, we rely on the power of narrative to make our case to our business stakeholders. It’s vital that we always tell ethical stories—ones that align with the values to which we and our organizations aspire.

Rather than being a question of what is good or bad, ethics is the process of deciding between conflicting values. How might your story displease one group of stakeholders or another? How should you communicate hotly debated issues? How should you decide what data to use in making design decisions and how should you represent that data? An ethical approach helps you to tackle making decisions such as these with confidence.

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When it comes to making ethical decisions, there is often no clear right or wrong answer. An ethical approach can help guide your choices as you construct narratives around design work—whether you’re relaying user-research insights, communicating the value of design to your business stakeholders, or showcasing the impacts of your designs.

Standard Approaches to Ethics

Let’s consider a few standard approaches to ethical theory. These approaches include the following:

  • care-based ethics—This ethical approach focuses on promoting healthy relationships with people and the well-being of others.
  • deontological ethics—Your goal in following this approach is to uphold your moral duties above all else.
  • rights-based ethics—In taking this approach, you endeavor to live in accordance with your rights and responsibilities.
  • utilitarian ethics— This ethical approach seeks to generate the best outcomes for the largest numbers of people.
  • virtue-driven ethics—In this approach, you endeavor to be the best person you can be.

Applying any one of these approaches can lead to your making more thoughtful and nuanced design decisions.

Applying Ethical Approaches

Imagine that you’re preparing a quarterly review for your organization’s leadership team. You would, of course, want to please these important stakeholders, so you might feel some pressure to share just the positive news from your UX research findings. However, you also value the virtues of honesty and transparency.

How should you balance the tension between these two conflicting forces? Applying an ethical approach that aligns with both your own and your organization’s goals could help you decide how best to move forward.

Let’s look at how each of these ethical approaches might apply in this situation.

Care-Based Ethics

A care-based approach could help you see that sharing both positive and negative feedback would promote honest, healthy relationships with your stakeholders. While revealing negative feedback might not generate the reaction that you’d prefer from your stakeholders, if sharing that information would support the well-being of your users, doing so would probably worthwhile. So you could decide to focus on the positive, but also highlight how certain negative feedback has led you to make design improvements that are sure to help your users.

Deontological Ethics

A deontological approach to ethics could emphasize your duty to share a representative overview of your users’ feedback—balancing both positive and negative feedback—even if this means your stakeholders would be less happy with the results of your UX research. So you might decide to start with the negative feedback and explain that you value truth and transparency above all else.

Rights-Based Ethics

A rights-based approach to ethics might push you to make all the feedback that you’ve gathered available to all of your stakeholders in an appendix. However, you could emphasize your stakeholders’ responsibility for reviewing this appendix to ensure that they’re aware of the whole range of feedback. Then, in your report, you can focus on the feedback that you think best illuminates the purpose of your design narrative.

Utilitarian Ethics

A utilitarian approach might show that very few of your millions of users provided any negative feedback, so there would simply be no need for your designs to please that small percentage of users. Therefore, you can focus your story on the designs that you’re confident would please the vast majority of your users.

Virtue-Driven Ethics

A virtue-driven approach to ethics could encourage you to envision what a great person would do in this situation and help you to overcome any anxieties you might have about sharing negative feedback with your stakeholders. So you would be able to speak candidly and confidently about the pros and cons of your design work and impress your stakeholders with your sincerity and your leadership skills.


As you endeavor to incorporate ethics into your design work, remember this: regardless of whether you’re doing so intentionally, you’re crafting narratives every day. And ethical decisions factor into those narratives, no matter how big or small.

You cannot solve complex ethical dilemmas in the same way you would a math equation. When making decisions regarding specific design challenges, UX designers always need to consider competing values and goals. There might not be a perfect outcome that would satisfy everyone equally. However, when you approach decision-making ethically, you can be confident that the direction your narrative takes aligns with what you and your stakeholders value most. 

Co-director of Design Practice at Pragmatic Institute

New York City, New York, USA

Shannon McGarityShannon has spent more than 20 years solving clients’ design challenges in roles ranging from head of product to UX director. Prior to joining Pragmatic, Shannon was a director at the strategic design firms Cooper and Designit—leading teams on projects, creating curricula, coaching innovation teams; and teaching service design, design leadership, and more. Shannon received her Bachelor of Science in Telecommunications from Ohio University and her Master of Professional Studies (MPS) from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at Tisch School of the Arts. She is also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, focusing on leadership coaching.  Read More

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