Are you inadvertently creating unethical products?

As UXers, we’re here to champion the user in our projects, but do we really champion the user’s needs?

Within our product teams we strive to create great user experiences, typically we test out new concepts with our users, observe their behaviour, consolidate the data and use the insights to push the needle ever further to get more from our users – engaging them deeper into our product experiences.

But is that good enough? Do we ever stop to think about the behaviour we’re encouraging and the longer term implications they may have on our users beyond engaging with our product and generating “value” for both parties.

The problem

Today our digital products and businesses are mostly driven by data, this is due to the creation of more complex tailored solutions; and a shift in businesses practices to adopt agile practices to mirror the success of data driven companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Product Owners and even UX Designers are quantifying everything, the classic design-test-learn cycle is now gospel and teams typically test concepts see the immediate the impact, then incorporate these features into the next product iteration. The mindset is set in the ‘now’, and the vision massively myopic when it comes to the longer term or compounding effects to the user.

As we incorporate machine learning into delivering experiences, it become more and more difficult to even discern and rationalise what an individual user will experience – this is where it becomes intangible even for the product teams to understand the outcome, impact or network effects that may be induced.

So, data is bad?

Being data driven is good, you can quantify change and it’s impact to the user – but the problem is we generally only look at the immediate impact and then move on to the next issue and see how we can improve that. Longer term issues are rarely thought about until they manifest themselves into problems that cause unintended effects. A number of news aggregator services for example, keeps suggesting similar news sources and stories based on articles you’ve read; this can massively bias your view of the news and reinforce a particular world view. This happens over time and is an emergent system behaviour.

How does it happen?

People aren’t inherently evil, sitting around creating products that benefit their business and suck your soul dry (except maybe Cambridge Analytica); and not everyone is using machine learning yet, so how are these products being created?


The Agile process is designed around delivery and by it’s nature makes the team focus on small incremental change, so it’s easy to overlook long-term thinking – when everyone has their head down trying to make an MVP, improve performance or build that new killer feature and keep momentum going.

Roles, responsibilities, frameworks and team structures

Team structures and management hierarchies are a big factor in contributing to the creation of poor product experiences that have a blatant disregard for the user, outside of any immediate impact to them.

Ever been micro-managed or privy to a design by committee UX session? Senior managers who hold the purse strings can be very quick to push through business performance metrics to strong arm (JDFI) the UX / design to deliver an experience they believe the users desire.

Business first, conscience second

Unless businesses are based around social programmes, and by that I mean it’s core to the business model – profit will typically always trump any decision that does not directly increase revenue or the bottom line success metric.

What can we as UXers do?

There generally isn’t an explicit remit to look after the user’s well-being, and it’s not on anyone’s radar until it becomes a problem. So we need to begin thinking about the impact or long-term effects our products may have or contribute toward, and start the discussions within our teams.

Thought experiments

Run the scenarios, run some simple “what-if” thought experiments – take your personas and play out the scenarios and see what could happen with these individuals.

Don’t just look at the data

Look at the people, absorb that qualitative feedback from your data to give context, spend some time picking out themes, and read between the lines – then dig deeper.

Clearly outline roles and responsibilities

Prevent the business stakeholders from making product design decisions because they feel they understand the users – this has to be done up front. Team members need to respect the roles of specialists, when UX architects and designers are being told to JFDI against known best practice or their recommendations for the 100th time without any evidence to the contrary.

Build out a framework

Unless its been explicitly included as part of analysis it’ll get dumped the moment there are time constraints (always). Create a simple analysis framework which includes impact and concerns to your personas to help identify if are you triggering negative behaviours in your users.

We have to care…

It’s important we take care of our users, we can’t keep giving them sugar coated experiences and expect a healthy outcome in the long run. There will always be some unintended consequences with the products we create – we can’t predict every which way our users will use them.

But, instead of doing nothing, and letting users form poor or bad habits – we need to address these issues head on, do some longer-term thinking and ultimately do what we set out to do as UXers – to create better experiences for our users and help enrich their lives.