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The Ethical Promise of UX

A hand holding a pen rests over a set of paper wireframes.

I spend a lot of time talking about the ethical problems raised by how our digital spaces are designed, how artificial intelligence is developed and used, and how our human social structures and power structures influence our digital landscapes.

This is important work, but it isn’t the only work ethical thinking can do for UX. Ethics can also illuminate core goods that UX provides, from inclusion to accessibility to human connection.

In today’s blog, I’d like to focus on a few of the valuable things that have come out of good UX design that we should work to preserve and promote, even as we solve the problems of bad UX.

Good UX designs can:

👯 Bring people together

For small, marginalized communities, this can be an especially powerful way of learning that you’re not alone. Even for people who aren’t marginalized, well-designed digital spaces tend to embrace human weirdness, so you can connect with other people who DM the same indie role-playing game as you or find creators who share your macabre sense of humor.

If users need a particular service, well-designed apps and websites can easily connect them to people who provide that service. Even if technology fails, good UX can help the user figure out what’s going on and reconnect them with people who can help.

📢 Facilitate effective political action

Good UX design can provide digital spaces where people from the same city or even from across the world can organize around the same causes, share support and solidarity, and take collective measures to effect change for the better.

Connecting meaningfully in online spaces can help people band together and find that their collective power is greater than what they can achieve on their own. In the best cases, these interactions call out injustice and facilitate collective problem solving and mutual aid.

🛏 Create comfortable spaces

It can be incredibly meaningful to have something designed for you, especially when the rest of the world is designed in a way that rarely considers you, if at all. Taking the comfort and needs of all users into account is a powerful way of including traditionally marginalized groups and making spaces accessible for everyone.

This ethical good isn’t just realized in the end product—it’s also embedded into the UX process, in which designers and researchers seek out representative users, listen to their experiences, take their concerns seriously, and actively work to solve their problems. That proactive process of reaching out to solve problems before they’re built into the final design is not only the responsible thing to do, but also can build trust with members of different communities.

🏡 Improve quality of life

Good UX can make our lives better. It can make filling out a tedious form faster so we can get back to the more meaningful things in our lives. It can help us keep track of crucial information in medical contexts, where people’s lives are at stake. It can facilitate an enjoyable experience in app, but it can also fit into our daily rituals or help us achieve our long-term goals.

Trying to improve a user’s experience isn’t just about increasing the amount of immediate pleasure, though that is a core part of it. There is a whole host of complex user emotions that can be invoked by UX design, both good and bad, that inform the kind of relationship the user has with the design.

Good UX design can create a sense of trust or a feeling of being cared for. Good UX design may even be invisible, because it doesn’t break the rhythms of the user’s daily life. It might just be there in the background, helping users even if they don’t realize it.

What other ethical goods can UX promote? What would you add to this list?

Image Credit: Amélie Mourichon

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