Why user-centred design struggles with ethics

For decades we’ve been taught that user-centricity is the key to good design. But now the philosophy is showing vulnerabilities. We need approaches that are less narrow, less transactional, and more able to cope with the diverse, systemic challenges the 21st century has in store.

readymag blog_Why user-centred design struggles with ethics

For decades we’ve been taught that user-centricity is the key to good design. But now the philosophy is showing vulnerabilities. We need approaches that are less narrow, less transactional, and more able to cope with the diverse, systemic challenges the 21st century has in store. Designer and futurist Cennydd Bowles elaborates.

In those toddler days, when the connected age was still taking its first tremulous steps, digital design was slow to find its identity. Design practises tended to fall into one of two extremes; either the experimental but baffling sandbox of Flash design, or design as web page layout, subsumed in a developer’s daily work, a matter of table hacks and spacer GIFs.

It wasn’t until the early years of the new millennium that the budding UX movement, a chimera of human-computer interaction and library science, brought some rigour and process. The key to the movement’s success was a single, external reference point: the user. We were taught to stop focusing on business or technical whims, and to instead do what’s right for users. Do that, and everything else will fall into place.

It worked, mostly. User-centred design (UCD) helped convince tech companies that design can offer a reliable and genuine competitive advantage. The field matured, companies grew, conferences, books, and celebrities sprang up.

User-centricity became an orthodox view even outside the world of design.Of course, the problem with orthodoxy is that other options start to seem ridiculous.

Discussing the quirks and flaws of the status quo is seen as weird or borderline heretical. But as it belatedly dawns on our industry that technology has serious social and ethical dimensions, one thing is increasingly clear: user-centred design is inadequate for the needs of the 21st century.

The user isn’t all that matters

The most obvious flaw? What’s good for the user, may be awful for others. Design a beautiful interface that helps someone buy the SUV of their dreams and you’ll probably achieve business and user success, but at the cost of environmental damage. Build an app to help landlords turn city apartments into short-term vacation rentals? Your two primary user groups — property owners and visiting tourists — will be thrilled, but you’re making neighbourhoods worse, eroding local communities and pushing up rents for genuine residents.

Digital technology’s unique trait is scale; successful apps and products can reach millions of consumers within months. We have to recognise, then, that our responsibilities aren’t just to businesses and users.

We also have a responsibility to society, communities, and cities, to social goods like democracy and freedom, to non-human life, and to the planet itself. Yet these hidden, indirect stakeholders aren’t represented in UCD — instead, we assume every transaction between user and technology is positive and ignore any external damage the transaction may cause.

Make me think?

Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think — by some distance the best-selling UX book ever — is less a textbook for designers than a primer for marketers, execs, or anyone else who needs to understand why they should fund design. As the title suggests, Krug claims the user shouldn’t have to worry about how a device or product works. It’s the designer’s job to present a simple mental model and then design away — or otherwise hide — complexities that might threaten that model.

‘Don’t make me think’ is an understandable and useful concept that comes with a downside. The mindset tempts us to design products that operate by sleight of hand, that read users’ minds and pull a rabbit out of a hat. It promotes seamless experiences that whisk away all the techie stuff. As a result, we train people to believe they have no business tinkering under the hood of their technologies: “trust us, we’ve got this” is the message.

Little surprise that the general public finds the world of technology dizzying.

Most people have little idea how connected tech works, thanks in part to its seamless design. So we face a dangerous pairing, where we paint opaque technologies with seamless, magical interfaces, providing excellent cover for exploitative data harvesting and transfers.

Data misuse may have been the previous decade’s predominant digital trend. Users don’t understand and can’t correct a system that’s not working in their best interests; instead, they have to put blind faith in developers or hope the OS overlords (Apple, Google, Microsoft) or local regulators have built in enough controls to prevent abuse. So far, those hopes haven’t come true.

Sometimes, making people think is the only way to give them agency, to help them make informed decisions about important ethical questions.

Leave no trace

Despite these vulnerabilities, UCD adherents often argue user-centricity adopts a neutral, pure stance. It’s a stance that tends to look down on fashion and style, instead laying claim to a higher purpose. User-centred designers often describe themselves as impartial observers using rigorous, repeatable methods to uncover true needs and to support them via timeless design.

This supposed neutrality is a myth. Whenever you design, you’re making a claim about how the future should be. You’re putting forward an argument about which technologies should exist in our future world, how we should interact with them and, by extension, how we should interact with each other. Every click of the Erase tool discards thousands of other slightly different worlds.

All design bears the fingerprints of its creators, whether intended or not. A product we might think of as style-neutral and value-neutral is simply one that wears the predominant styles and values of the society we live in, invisible like the air.

So the very idea of neutral design is fundamentally conservative. Rather than trying to change society, or to engage with the ethics and the politics of the world around us, neutral design is content to reproduce the status quo, along with all its entrenched hierarchies and inequalities. Given the huge challenges facing society — scathing inequality, the conundrum of automation, and the looming climate emergency — we don’t have time for neutrality. This is no time to meekly support our current trajectory.

What we need

User-centred thinking has become an almost analgesic way of thinking, numbing us to the deeper impacts of innovation, both positive and negative. The current ethical crisis in technology is just a teaser of what lies ahead: we could argue that design’s most important role now is to help humans not flourish, but even just to *survive* the 21st century. So it’s time for design to abandon the pretence of neutrality and all its regressive connotations. We should recognise the responsibilities and powers we hold, and actively imbue our work with the values we want to see in the world.

This isn’t, however, a call for moralizing superheroes. Ethical and social change must be participatory, not imposed by privileged elites.

It’s time for an opinionated but flexible model of design; one that doesn’t revolve around the user — or indeed anyone — but instead addresses the diverse needs of all stakeholders, including indirect and hidden ones. This can only happen if designers become active facilitators, bringing unheard voices into the design process, and engaging the wider public in a discussion of the ethics of technology.