Releasing The Ethical Design Handbook When We Needed It Most

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Ari Stiles helps coordinate book production for Smashing. She uses her penchant for design, writing, research, and organization to foster meaningful … More about Ari ↬

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Early this month, The Ethical Design Handbook joined the Smashing Library of essential books for designers and developers. Changes around the world have meant changes in the book release, but readers love it so far! Ethical Design principles are timeless and we are seeing the results of that during an unprecedented time of change.

Ethics is a timely subject for all of us who work on digital products, so it was no surprise The Ethical Design Handbook was well received. There is a real need for practical solutions beyond just complying with the law. The book offers ways to evaluate current practices, create opportunities for change when needed, and embed ethical design into your workflow.

Something Good In The Mail

As printed copies started to make their way around the world, we got to see some happy responses and thoughtful reviews:

“After reading this book it is suddenly very clear how saturated the digital realm is with manipulative design. And that it is staged with intent. “The Ethical Design Handbook” teaches both the persuader and the persuaded what design for the most vulnerable looks like and how to avoid surveillance capitalism – the root cause of unethical design.”

— Mie Oehlenschlager, Now It’s Time To Act
“To assist in this decision-making the book also provides some really good practical tools and templates provided for assessing ethical considerations. I hope these will be put to good use by many readers. Throughout, there is an especially strong emphasis on the risks of collecting and managing personal data, and the importance of actually accumulating as little of it as possible. The walkthrough of different types of website cookies is also a great example of a useful artefact to enable relevant team discussions.”

— Per Axbom, Managing Consequences of Design

This isn’t the first book for Trine Falbe, Martin Michael Frederiksen and Kim Andersen—they are also the authors of White Hat UX—but The Ethical Design Handbook brought its own unique challenges from the start. The authors had difficulty finding examples of good ethics. DuckDuckGo, Goodwings, and LINGScars are just a few of the ethical sites and services eventually showcased in the Handbook.

Another challenge came just a few days after the release of the book, as quarantine and lockdown orders spread around the world. The spread of COVID-19 dominated the news, and as events were either canceled, rescheduled, or moved online, we had to rethink traditional book release plans.

“We felt it made most sense to stop actively marketing the book at that point. It just didn’t feel right to celebrate and to ask people to support us, when they clearly had so much to worry about.”

— Trine Falbe

Spreading The Word In Ethical Ways

The book launch party planned for UX Copenhagen had to be scrapped when the event went online. Falbe still presented “Ethical Design Beyond the ‘Feel Good’” at the conference, raffled off a couple of books, and took questions from the audience.

Trine Falbe presenting at UX Copenhagen—showing how online ticketing services use urgency, scarcity, and loss aversion to pressure shoppers into buying event tickets. (Large preview)

The Ethical Design Handbook made a few guest appearances at the conference, too:

Looking Forward

The use of online services, delivery apps, and teleconferencing is surging right now as we all find new ways to keep working, take care of each other, and stay connected. If the core mission of design is problem-solving, maybe we DO need designers now more than ever.

Other disciplines focus on problem-solving too—engineers, doctors, teachers—and the best of them all have a code of ethics that informs professional behavior and decisions. Most of the time, these codes are more stringent than the law.

There are ethical codes for business, too. But dark patterns, poor privacy protections, and a lack of transparency are proof that many of our digital services are not built on ethical foundations. Companies that do build with ethics in mind don’t have to make big changes when new legislation like GDPR and CCPA becomes law.

Should designers insist on ethical projects and workflow? Can they? The Ethical Design Handbook gives us a place to start: a business case for doing the right thing.

The news around tech companies during the pandemic has made choices even more difficult for users. Tech companies with deep pockets and convenient services have pounced on opportunities to improve their image, but it’s not all good news. Zoom, for example, is one of the more accessible platforms for online meetings, and they’ve made their platform free for schools. Zoom is also making headlines for sending user data to Facebook and plenty of other ethical shortcomings. Many companies will grow during the pandemic, but the ones who stick to ethical practices might be able to keep those new customers.

“If I was running a company that actually protects people’s privacy (like for online meetings) I would make sure to surface that in my communication. Another important element is transparency. People are in a state of crisis, and the last thing we need is to feel tricked. If we find a product or service that treats us well, doesn’t hide costs, doesn’t violate our privacy, and does their best to be honest about it, we will stick with them.

After all of this is over, we'll remember the companies and people that did good.”

— Trine Falbe

Tell Us Something Good

It’s a safe guess that Smashing readers are giving tech advice to a lot of family and friends right now. What are your favorite ethically-made digital products? What services and apps are you recommending to others? Let us know in the comments!

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Smashing Editorial (ra, il)