Designing an Ethical Future

  • June 23, 2022
digital image of papers and screens

"The road to ruin is paved with good intentions,” or so the old saying goes. Technology has the potential to help push society forward, better connect us, make our lives easier and enrich us. But whether that future is bright depends not on our intentions but on our actions and the consequences they evoke.

The exponential tech growth we’ve seen in the last 10 years, from the internet and social media to smartphones, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, seems to point to a better-connected society where machines help us understand each other and eliminate bias from our world.

But present-day reality shows us there’s a dark side to this technology. The data that helps humans understand each other better is the same data that can be used to manipulate us. Algorithms meant to eliminate bias might actually propagate it. Social mediums that bring us together can also divide us. And the digital interactions that have become a part of our everyday lives can lead to anxiety and even addiction.

Designers never intended any of this. Back in the early days of user experience (UX) design, when clients would ask me to make their site or app “sticky,” the goal was to get people to spend more time interacting with their brands. We leveraged gamification, alerts, badges and scores to add a bit of harmless fun in our drive to increase engagement.

What we didn’t realize is every “like,” badge and alert tapped into the addiction center of the brain. In 2018, the American Psychiatric Association recognized addiction to gaming and the internet in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The good news: It’s not too late to rewrite the future. We have the power to turn our intentions into actions that will create a future we all want to live in.

It starts with ethical design, which focuses on the intersection of technology, business, human and society, and seeks to create solutions that meet the needs of all four. While design often drives progress, it must be clearly defined, understood and owned by everyone — from designers and technologists to business stakeholders — to be successful.

Here at NTT DATA, we developed a Data and Design Code of Ethics, complete with a governance model, that clearly articulates to everyone in our experience design, build and analytics teams what ethical design and data use is, how to incorporate it into their work, and how to recognize and resolve ethical violations they may encounter. We even have an escalation process should anyone on the team feel they’re being asked to design or develop something they feel is wrong.

And we encourage our teams to ask questions: Why are we capturing this customer data? How will it be used? If we leverage data to design an interaction that increases engagement, what are the benefits to the end user? What might the risks be?

We provide team members with real scenarios and offer them alternative options that achieve client business goals without straying into questionable ethical territory.

Central to the code is transparency. It’s a vital way to empower users to decide what they want to do with data. Transparency also means building and maintaining the trust of people of all cultural, educational and financial backgrounds. And that means steering clear of dark patterns (like making a service easy to sign up for but difficult to cancel) and using plain language rather than confusing jargon.

Privacy and confidentiality are also paramount. According to our Data and Design Code of Ethics, designers must always: Respect data privacy and ensure confidentiality is never compromised; document the reasons for collecting data and ensure all data collected is essential; and document a process for notifying customers of any changes in data collection or handling and ensure the analysis has been checked by a diverse set of reviewers to confirm there’s no bias.

Designers must always respect customers as people, not as a product, statistic or persona. We must explore the long-term effects of present-day design choices and ask not what if this fails, but what if it’s wildly successful? And what impact will that success have on the person? We must maximize the positive and minimize the negative.

Mainly, it’s important for organizations to understand the value that design ethics holds for their business. It’s not an either/or scenario. Ethical business is good business, particularly if your goal is customer loyalty and lifetime customer value. Do your employees understand the importance of ethics to your business and how that translates to their work? Have they been empowered to make ethical choices?

It’s also important to recognize that ethics isn’t one size fits all. It’s cultural, according to Antonio Grillo, Service and UX Design Director at NTT DATA Italia and Adjunct Professor of Inclusive Design at Politecnico de Milano in Milan, Italy.

“We all wear different cultural lenses,” Grillo says. “We must empower people and make transparency a must-have principle that is injected into every step of the experience.”

And, of course, we must make technology accessible to all, which isn’t only ethical, says Grillo, it’s also smart for business. “Take inclusion for those with disabilities. If you are considering 80% of people are other-abled — mild to severe — you are excluding almost 80% of your customer base by not being inclusive. This thinking moves your business from focusing on avoiding penalties to creating potential,” he says.

Smartphones, for example, were designed to fit most hands and they’re becoming increasingly more accessible, Grillo says, with planned updates to introduce features such as automatic image descriptions and live captions for audio. This is an example of accessible technology at work.

The most important thing to remember is that though ethics is a life-long journey, designers can’t do this alone. Business leaders and decision-makers also need to take a stand to choose ethical practices in their daily objectives. And we must act now if we want to make sure we’re on the right path.

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Lisa Woodley

Lisa Woodley has spent 20 years bringing technology and business together to design new experiences. As VP of Customer Experience for NTT DATA Services, Lisa brings the human perspective to technology innovation to create digital experiences that elevate brands and drive business value. Lisa was a Computerworld Top 100 Technology leader in 2017 and is a Women in IT Digital Leader of the Year finalist in for 2020. In addition to her role at NTT DATA, she is an adjunct at Rutgers University where she teaches User Experience Design as part of their Masters of Business and Science program.

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