The Ethical Designer's Dilemma

We’re scared. We’re scared that this device called the smartphone--that we’ve invited into our homes, into our bedrooms, and into our lives--isn’t a friend but an invader. It’s an invader that doesn’t serve us. It serves others. It’s taking something from us while cleverly pretending to be giving us something.

The Internet was founded on the idea that information is free. People became used to that notion despite the fact that nothing else in the commercial world works that way. Newspapers that tried to collect money for their articles so they could cover their operating expenses were soon undercut by competitors who said “we’ll give you free articles! Don’t read paper X, read our paper, Y!” Paper Y figured they’d work out a way to cover this giveaway later...but later never came. The commercial model collapsed online. It didn’t work because people were conditioned to expect online content to be free. That largely holds true today.

Enter the attention economy. If companies aren’t charging for their apps, they have to find some way to pay to cover their costs and make a profit, so they’re selling you: your data, your profile, your consuming habits. Marketers are buying this data to better target consumers in a way never before possible. If you’re in the market to buy an obscure widget, there’s a good chance they'll find you because of the “data exhaust” you leave behind on all of the “free” apps you use.

Where does this leave the designer who’s being asked to build an app that takes advantage of how the human brain is known to work...essentially using the user’s brain against them so that they’re not serving their own best interests, but that of some faceless company, the one giving the app away for “free”? Good question.

Aaron Weyenberg and Tristan Harris suggest that the modern designer is faced with an ethical dilemma: follow the employer’s demands for a money-making app that turns the user’s smartphone against them or mindfully develop apps that put the smartphone back into the service of its owner. Turn it back into a tool instead of an invader. But there’s a further complication: ethical development probably means apps that won’t make money for the company that pays for the developer’s efforts. Neither Weyenberg nor Harris deal with this conundrum. They’ve each hit upon an immovable object and irresistible force problem. No company will pay a developer or designer to build apps that are both free to the user and which don’t take advantage of the user. Not everything can be monetized. Sometimes good, ethical work is its own reward...but that doesn’t pay the designer’s bills.

This isn’t unique to web or app design. Designers of all stripes eventually hit this philosophical wall. “I became a designer because I wanted to make beautiful things. But the companies that employ me are using my skills to make people want things that they don’t need and which are causing them to feel bad about themselves and (in some cases) are ruining the planet. Now what do I do?” This is a nearly insoluble dilemma.

Every designer has to come to their own ethical conclusions. Either they’re able to compartmentalize their work and their feeling about their fellow man or they’re not. For some, it may drive them straight out of the field. What most people want is to feel that they’re not tools of the corporate state, that they’re having a positive effect on the world, making it a better place, not a more cynical one.