Ethical UX Connundrums

I cannot recommend Mike Monteiro’s talk “How Designers Destroyed the World” highly enough. Monteiro reminds us that we are responsible for what we put out into the world. It’s a blessing and a curse. One of the stories he tells is the story of Bobbi, a girl who joined her college “Queer Chorus.” Bobbi loved to sing, and she is also a lesbian.

However, Bobbi had not yet come out to her parents. When the well-meaning chorus leader added her to the chorus’ Facebook page, he inadvertently outed her. What’s more, many of her friends turned on her, including her family pastor who left her a voicemail telling her that “Hell awaits you.” Bobbi was devastated.

Careless Design Ruins Lives

Monteiro reminds us that this was not the chorus leader’s “fault.” He added Bobbi to the FB group to easily communicate with his choir. He kept the Facebook page “open” (i.e. not hidden) because he knew how important it was for his chorus to be proud of themselves. Bobbi also did nothing “wrong” in this situation. Her reasons for not coming out to her parents earlier are entirely her own. She set her Facebook privacy settings to protect her.

To be completely fair, Facebook also didn’t mean for this to happen. The Facebook group settings allow other people to add you to a group, to encourage social networking. That is Facebook’s goal. The group settings also override the personal privacy settings. That makes it easier for people to share information – communication is another of Facebook’s goals.

I said that Facebook didn’t mean for this to happen. I did not say it wasn’t their fault it happened. It is their fault, due (as Monteiro says) to a “careless design decision.”

Ethical UX

I doubt highly that the UX designers at Facebook thought of this as a potential use case when designing their group settings. It is an unlikely (and unfortunate) combination of events. However, I don’t remotely doubt that many of the UX folk at Facebook worry about situations exactly like this. They do try to consider each possibility. It’s in our nature as UX professionals.

Pulling from my own anecdotal experiences, I have found that content strategists, information architects, and other UX professionals differ from creative-non-UX people in one significant way. They chose a job where they could help people.We help people find the information they need. We create experiences that change peoples’ lives. These big hearts and heavy consciences help us to be empathetic and identify solutions. But they also lead us to ethical conundrums when achieving a business objective risks putting a user in Bobbi’s situation.

Not sure you’re empathetic enough? Ask yourself…

Sounds like you work in user experience.

Practice Hard Decisions

Unfortunately, there’s rarely a bright and shining one-correct-answer. What you can do is practice. It’s easier to solve other peoples’ problems than your own, so when you hear about a tough ethical choice, ask yourself “how should they solve this?” Then ask yourself, “how would I solve this, in their shoes?” Is the answer the same? If not, why not? What became more complicated when you stepped into their shoes? Can you bring back some of the simplicity of solving the problem for someone else?

We may not have the answers, but as long as we’re asking the questions I think we’re on the right track.

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