What is Ethical design?

Satya Srivastava
5 min readMar 13, 2021


Design has the capacity to nudge users to do intended tasks. Typically these nudges are systematically placed and designed such that users are guided to take actions that benefit the business of the product/service owner.

For example, the Amazon prime cancellation procedure is long and consists of six separate pages. On each separate page, the consumer is nudged toward keeping their Prime membership, even though they have begun a procedure to end the agreement. This unsettling experience is further strengthened by having to scroll through the page, which is full of text and graphics to show how cancelling the membership will mean the loss of many benefits.

Another example of deceptive design can be witnessed when we look at skincare products, labelling their products ‘dermatologically tested’ and not ‘dermatologically recommended’ to imply it’s superior quality. ‘Dermatologically tested’ implies that testing was done and not the results of the tests. Consumers associate validation of quality to the product, their impression about the product becomes positive.

These practices are called Dark patterns. A few examples of these are

  • Roach Motel — You get into a situation very easily, but then you find it is hard to get out of it (e.g. a premium subscription).
  • Misdirection — The design purposefully focuses your attention on one thing in order to distract your attention from another.
  • Forced Continuity — When your free trial with a service comes to an end and your credit card silently starts getting charged without any warning. In some cases, this is made even worse by making it difficult to cancel the membership.
  • Sneak into Basket — You attempt to purchase something, but somewhere in the purchasing journey the site sneaks an additional item into your basket, often through the use of an opt-out radio button or checkbox on a prior page.

Such design practices have been prevalent in Silicon Valley and their products. With the advent of AI, the threat from such design practices exponentially increases. The Big 4 has been notoriously called out in the media for employing these tricks. Their impact not only affects relatively frivolous Amazon prime subscription retention but also influences large scale public events like the elections. The rise of technology and dependencies on products is creating a recipe for disaster.

“When a company like Facebook improves the experience of its products, it’s like the massages we give to Kobe beef: they’re not for the benefit of the cow but to make the cow a better product. In this analogy, you are the cow.” — Aral Balkan, ethical designer and founder of ind.ie

Observing these events, the industry is bearing witness to designers that are blowing the whistle against such practises. Designers that are aware of the downsides of these practises call themselves ethical designers.

Beginning of the ethical wave in the design industry

The documentary The Social dilemma sent quite the waves in the design industry where big names, industry influencers began voicing their concerns about using deceptive designs. Their study of ethics in context to design acknowledges that the onset of Dark patterns is byproducts of aggressive / growth-oriented business models.

Typically digital business models are dependent on high user engagement rates and low user attrition rates. It becomes natural for businesses to employ instantly gratifying unethical (for users/environment) measures to retain/maintain revenue streams.

While critiquing these practices, it is also important to know that these digital business models do not operate in a vacuum, they are representative of economic affordances and constraints of the world. For example, surveillance capitalism is fostered and upheld by the tech giants. The root of the problem lies within the business model of capitalising and monetising user data.

Design Ethicists fight back

Design ethicists have since been actively involved in either creating frameworks to up-skill and tools to help design teams to create ethical designs or developing tenets like the heuristics that designers adore to use.

Beyond that, there has been an increase in non-profit advocacy for the ethical design of information technology (IT) aimed at changing corporate culture, public policy, and consumer habits. For example, the Center for Humane Technology, led by former “tech insiders and CEOs” from some of the top IT firms in the US, proposes to fight the many ways that “technology hijacks our minds.” The Center has launched what it calls a Time Well Spent Movement, which invites everyone to join in the effort to take back our lives from addictive technologies.

The ‘Ethical Hierarchy of Needs’ (licensed under CC BY 4.0) (Source: ind.ie)

Ethical Hierarchy of needs tries to highlight that feature lists and product experience shouldn’t compromise on these rights what it fails to recognize that most of these However in-app advertisements are the most used monetization strategy for android apps. Where apps inform marketers about a users profile to show them relevant ads.

What the Ethical ‘Hierarchy of needs’ fails to address is the sustainability of the business itself, as long as the business doesn’t benefit from employing ethical design practices there are no reasons for product companies to be ethical (There does seem to be an argument about how companies employ ethical design for PR reasons but perniciously deceptive design practices seep into the product and the PR image makes these practices go unnoticed.)

No light at the end of the tunnel.

In the book ‘How Users Matter — The co-construction of users and technology’ the authors argue that users have become an integral part of technology studies. Users shape technology in all phases, from design to implementation. Using a variety of theoretical approaches, the authors examine what users do with technology and, in turn, what technology does to users.

By this order, design rationales and business rationales are informed by what humans are subjected to in the world. Unless business practices don’t get ethical IRL, the tech industry won’t get ethical and neither will the internet.



Satya Srivastava

Researcher by day, Musician by night, Cheesy by character.