Ethical design: the role of experience design in equality and diversity

‘Ethical design’ is a divisive and interesting topic, no more pertinent than when we are in a time of accelerated social change. In 2016, diversity agendas are being prioritised within many Australian organisations, often because of the emerging evidence that, the more diverse a working group, the more successful the ideas and the more financially successful an organisation is likely to be.


Within the design world, design ethics are more often discussed when applied to the topic of ‘persuasive design’, which is broadly perceived as using what we know about consumers to ‘get them to do stuff’ they don’t want to do, like buying an extra item they probably can’t afford. The assumption is that our abilities are so mighty that we can co-erce innocent people into doing what we want them to do against their will. In reality, even though we can guide people through an experience with less friction and emphasise specific actions, our job is ultimately to give people want they want so that businesses can have a better relationship with their customers. None of our skills are so scientific that we know exactly what every user is going to do, nor can we force people to do something they don’t want to.


We are, however, very influential. It’s true. We can make or break an experience with a few missteps. There are multiple articles, including some of my own, that talk about how to do what’s right for all those poor, frustrated users out there. There aren’t as many perspectives on how experience design can do what is right for society on the whole. What role, if any, should experience design professionals play in equalising society and enabling diversity? I believe we are already on the right path.

Starting with research: behavioral groups vs segments

Happily, user experience research has shifted the needle to be more inclusive in that it is largely about behaviours. What this means is that we group people according to their intents, pain points, needs, goals and actions, not their demographic profile. This is how we differ from market researchers. We are not trying to ‘target’ a group of people, but to design products and services that enable people to complete tasks and goals in the best possible way. If we find a group of people who all have the same behaviors AND they happen to all be female (for example), we would see their gender as a more of a co-incidence or a sub-feature, instead of the primary defining factor of the grouping. The group will be named according to their primary behavioral patterns (such as ‘digital disruptors’).

This approach allows us to negate ‘unconscious bias’ during the design process. What we mean by ‘unconscious bias’ is that, unfortunately, we all have pre-conditioned perceptions about people based on their demographic profiles. No matter how open-minded, we have all been influenced by our own experiences and cultural references. Not only do we feel that we are expected to behave a certain way based on our own demographic identity, but we make assumptions about how others should behave based on the same references.

An experiment in unconscious bias

If you don’t believe me, try this experiment with a group of colleagues or friends. Create a ‘persona’ card on a whiteboard. Write out the following headings and leave a space underneath each for the group to complete:


  • Needs
  • Goals
  • Pain points


Assign a gender, age, sexuality, race and financial bracket to your persona. Give them a typical name. Now allow the group to fill in their story, creating bullet points under each of the headings above.


What is likely to happen is that the group will reveal their existing pre-conceptions about that demographic sample. Be prepared to uncover some unexpected opinions that may be contentious and possibly cause offense within the group. I have run this persona exercise a number of times with a vast array of audiences. In a diverse group, an older, white, hererosexual, affluent male persona was turned into a corrupt, self-obsessed, materialistic adulterer. In one workshop with a less diverse audience, a persona for a 50 year old single woman became a desperate, unambitious spinster who watched soap operas all day and loved cats. Poor Stanley. Poor Jill.


This can be an entertaining and depressing exercise, but it is ultimately designed to show this; unconscious biases can be dangerous and inaccurate when they influence the design process. This is one of the reasons why, in user experience, the behaviour is the leading quality, not the demographic profile. Behaviors are largely conscious and evidence based, allowing us to build for real needs.


Products that attempt to equalise: segregationist vs integrationist approaches


There are so many ways we can contribute to a more equal society through product and service design. I’m going to highlight two approaches I see on a regular basis; segregationist vs integrationist approaches.


Segregationist approaches believe that marginalised groups are fundamentally different and can only reach their full potential if they are siloed and spoken to in a way that is catered specifically to their needs, as a way to compensate for mainstream information geared towards a dominant demographic. An example of this would be to create a separate website specifically for pensioners, giving them softer advice about how to use digital tools. However, by taking a segregationist approach we are doing two things:


    • Ignoring technically savvy pensioners, of which there are many
    • Reinforcing the fact that older people are not a part of mainstream society and can’t comprehend general information


Adversely, integrationist approaches believe that, if we ignore demographics, society will catch up and equalise. This means removing content that may be targeted to any one demographic group and creating a neutral space while still allowing people to customise the experience based on their comprehension needs instead. An example of this applied to the previous example would be to create one site that allows people to toggle the level of advice based on their level of understanding, not their age. As we now have the ability to tap into implicit personalisation (tracking online behavior) we can determine what content the user responds to and how they would like to receive it without having to rely on demographic profiling. Generally, user experience for digital products aligns to an integrationist approach, because:


  • The fundamentals of usability are that a product should be so well designed that anyone should be able to use it, but that you can create separate states for beginner and advanced users
  • As stated previously, UX research also focuses on behaviors, not demographic profiling, enabling every user based on needs

What works now vs what’s right in the long run


Research is challenging. When it is taken too literally it can result in products and services that are too obvious to compete, or we limit their longevity because the insight may only be accurate now. The job of an experience strategist is to convert results into genuine insights, and then decide how to turn them into something useful that has a reasonable lifespan. But sometimes we also have to decide ‘what’s the right thing to do?’


For example, if some data told us that fewer women (for example) were graduating with science degrees and we needed to increase enrollment, we could address the problem by using design patterns that women have been programmed to respond to (specific colours, specific shapes, specific language) in order to redesign information about a scientific education. Would it be right for us to reinforce these stereotypical patterns, even if they are currently successful in converting women? Does the fact that we are trying to enable women mean that we can leverage current stereotypes? Are we not just marginalising women further?


Adversely, if we make the assumption that women and men are the same – just people with a combination or behavioral tendencies unrelated to their gender – we could design a site for all people who are intimidated by the lack of diversity in science degrees, allowing us to design a solution without demographic bias which would be more useful and contemporary for far longer. Co-incidentally, this is also likely to be the ‘right’ thing to do in the fight for equality.


So…what role, if any, should experience design professionals play in equalising society and enabling diversity?


As people who will be commissioned to construct experiences within a contemporary society, you are going to need to have a perspective on where you stand. How are you going to use your influence? Are you going to reinforce the status quo or give society a little nudge in a more integrated direction?


Myself? I prefer to nudge.