Per Axbom is a designer, coach and visual explainer working out of Stockholm, Sweden. He has dabbled in usability, accessibility and UX since the mid-nineties. His passion for interviews, sketches and prototypes allow him to understand vividly and explain comprehensibly. His passion for listening helps people get unstuck and move forward in work and life.
Over the years, Per has consulted for over 50 organizations, startups as well as leading international corporations. The past three years he has worked as the UX lead for Sweden’s national platform for online behavioral therapy.
Regularly contributing to the UX community through blog posts and podcasts, Per is very keen on promoting the concept of design ethics and is working on a book to help designers embrace ethics thinking.
Navigating the ethical minefield of digital design
I started working with usability hoping to help create a better world by making it easier and more enjoyable to use digital technology. I was driven by a desire to help humans feel less pain when interacting with online tools and services.
Some years ago I started acknowledging ways in which people fell in harm’s way by my design. A notification was perhaps intended as a friendly reminder and call to act on important events. The same notification triggered across a week could increase stress and cause lower work satisfaction. This could be true even when the notification was a direct result of explicit user demands. Worse still, the receivers of these notifications were doctors in charge of patients who could potentially harbor suicidal tendencies.
Even as positive outcomes can be ascribed to a design project we need to look one step further and consider negative impact. Negative impact will occur in many ways: increased anxiety, outspoken misogyny and racism, reduced mental and physical health, diminishing privacy, poor decision-making, deception, loss of trust and more. Yes, even death.
As a designer, you are today pivotal in creating the future we live in. Innovation is progressing faster than public policy or ethical considerations can keep pace. If you want to take responsibility for the impact of your own work you need to incorporate a moral framework in your design process.
Adding to the problem, many designers are using methods borrowed from popular psychology in an attempt to influence decision-making when using a digital service. Concepts such as nudging and behavioral economics encourage designers to manipulate without a full grasp of the consequences.
Last year, Nextdoor experienced negative impact in a big way. Nextdoor is an online space offering private areas for chatting with people in your neighborhood. People are required to use real names and addresses to sign up. In 2015 they were getting concerned reports about racial profiling on their platform as neighbors were reporting suspicious behaviour and only reporting this as "black people".
Imagine having to realize: the platform you built to bring communities closer was in fact creating great divides within them.
Nextdoor took this problem seriously and experienced success in managing the issue. In a walkthrough of the components required for successfully managing negative impact I will use the example of Nextdoor and other use cases to guide you through a process for designing with a conscience.