It’s hard to imagine a time when creatives had more tools and resources at their fingertips. Today, a website can be built in days, an audio file edited in minutes, an image socialized in seconds. But just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should. That’s the basis of design ethics, a subject that is becoming even more important at a time when technology continues to rapidly open new avenues for creatives.
99U recently sat down with Courtney George, Adobe’s Experience Design Manager, and Phil Clevenger, Adobe’s Senior Director of Experience Design, to learn more about the process of addressing design ethics and how maintaining design standards makes designers good societal stewards.
When we talk about design ethics, what exactly are we talking about?
CG: It’s really about the means that we use to achieve an end that we deem to be good. It needs to be something that is complementary to our own values, or our company values if we’re working at a company. It’s not like legal, which is a lot more black and white: You do something and it is legal, or you do something and it is illegal. Ethics is inherently more gray and flexible.
When we think about design ethics, especially in tech, it’s about slowing down and being more conscientious and intentional about what we are creating and what we’re putting out into the world. It’s thinking about what the impact might be on the people that we’re serving, people that our customers are serving, their well-being, their relationships, society in general, and the environment. It’s never-ending, and in some ways that can be overwhelming, but it’s also extremely important in this day and age.
Why is this such a big focus for companies right now?
PC: These conversations have been around for a very long time, but what makes them immediately relevant are these three issues: scale, velocity, and access. Right now we have the ability for people to push a button and create whatever they want in an instant at virtually no cost, whatever their intention may be, whether they’re selling tacos or they’re introducing viruses, or they’re engaging in political speech. Our actions are immediately impactful at a huge scale, at zero cost, and they’re potentially very, very hard to roll back.
Where do design ethics come into play? Is there a recent example that comes to mind?
PC: A perfect example is a project that Adobe unveiled at the 2016 Adobe MAX conference. It was a technology that enables users to quickly edit recorded speech using only a text editor and, given a large enough sample of the subject’s speech, create strings of speech that hadn’t previously existed.
While the narrative that we presented at MAX was entertaining, it became clear that the technology could be used by bad actors. You could imagine the ramifications of something like that especially in the current political climate. There was a considerable amount of blowback, and rightfully so, from the audience and from the community at large.
So Adobe has taken several steps back to examine it. We’ve been looking very closely at important questions: the cases we want to serve, the guardrails we want to put in, the high bars we want to set. What are rights issues around it? Do we even own our own voice? Do we have a remedy available if someone misuses our voice or our speech to harm people? And what if new solutions introduce new problems?
We’ve seen plenty of instances where even products created with the best intentions get used in ways we never imagined. When that happens, do we, as creators, ever have the ability to ever return it to what we thought it was, or is it a lost cause?
CG: You could have the best intentions and do everything right and there are still going to be unintended consequences. They’re “unintended” for a reason. What is important is to be able to course correct, take accountability, and be mindful of the impact that it has had on people or on society. I think we do a decent job of that in the tech industry. It’s not like what you put out there is final and you never have to touch it again.
We’re good at iterating and optimizing, and I think that this is an important step, to constantly examine what’s out in the market, examine what you put out there, and keep your eye out for those consequences, so you can course correct in a timely manner.
Adobe Design is putting a lot of effort into getting the whole organization to abide by certain design ethics. What are some of the main principles?
PC: Well, this is a work in progress, but one solid principle is that we should recognize bias, knowing that bias is inherently neither good nor bad, and that bias is omnipresent. Where there are people, there is bias. The trick is to recognize the bias, understand its impact on your efforts, and to mitigate it as needed.
Another example is that we must be respectful of our users’ time, intentions, privacy, and intelligence. This is obvious enough that it shouldn’t have to be said, but important enough that it should be hanging from each of our desktops all the time. We want to make sure that we’re building tools and setting examples for our customers that ensure that we’re enabling them to be respectful of their end users across all those dimensions. If you’re popping up advertisements that get between your users’ intentions and their results, then you’re not being respectful of their time.
What are the questions that designers should be asking themselves?
PG: We are starting by asking designers to be mindful of what they’re doing, and to take stock of what they’re being asked to do. As seen through the principles we just mentioned, are you being asked to design something that perpetuates a negative bias? Are you being asked to do something that’s not respectful of your users’ time and intentions?
Remember, we are user experience designers. We’re here to try to make the world a better place for the people who consume the products we design. And where those things aren’t happening or where your company’s values are in conflict with your own personal values – you have to be mindful of all these dynamics. Take some time to articulate an opinion and make that opinion count. Have uncomfortable conversations, if you have to, with the people that you’re working with and the people that you’re working around. If you have to hand the work off, and if you’re uncomfortable with where it’s going, create an artifact to represent your opinion that can travel with the work. Stand up and have a voice.
It’s often said that good ethics is good business. Do you think companies will make this a bigger focus going forward, whether through setting up ethics departments, ethics programs, or something else?
CG: Yeah, I think we’re already seeing that happen, especially in the tech industry. You’re seeing it with Salesforce, which recently hired an ethics officer. You’re seeing it at many large companies, and Adobe is definitely one of them.
Regardless of what our respective companies are doing about this, we are challenging the design community overall to be thought leaders here: make sure you and your teams are stopping and asking these questions, and sharing the findings clearly at every step. Help your teams, your stakeholders, and your employers all develop best practices and principles in any way you can. It’s a huge challenge, and design can surely lead the way.
Interview edited for clarity and length.