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Designing Experiences

Ethics of Experience Design

As discussed, Experience Design can be seen as directing the nomadic focus and perception of an individual's phenomenological view of- and interaction with the world. As a director, the experience designer has a lot of power and thus a lot of responsibility to take good care of the user they are designing for.

Ethics of designing experiences

Experience Design can be used to steer people, have them choose or refrain from options. Thaler and Sunstein (2009, p.23) coined the term nudge to describe “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”.

Notably, while nudges can and are used in situations to make a user's life better or easier, they don't have to be in the interest of the user at all. When used in ways to benefit the company, they are also called dark patterns (Brignull, 2010). Dark patterns are particularly prevalent online, in email newsletters, check-out forms, and more places where companies could profit off a confused user.

As our understanding of human psychology increased, we've become better at making products and services that "stick" by turning them into habits through the so-called Hook Model (Eyal, 2016).

It is absolutely crucial that companies exercise restraint and responsibility in designing habit-forming products and services, so as to not make users addicted. Nonetheless, not all products need to be habit-forming, but bad actors will try to make them anyway. As a design community and a society, we had best educate users to be aware of the techniques used to manipulate us. As Brignull puts it for dark patterns:

Our best defence against the dark patterns is to be aware of them, and shame the companies who utilise them.

Ethics of design research

Experience Design is site-specific, and it requires a lot of investment to understand a particular site. Designers aim to get an understanding of this context through all kinds of design research techniques, including desk research, surveys, interviews, and embodiment. But as Norris writes:

Research (...) is a human activity, subject to the same kinds of failings as other human activities.

There is an inherent bias in any research that any one (design) researcher conducts, be it selection- and sampling biases, availability of data, interpretation of data, and more. This can result in not only usability problems but ethical issues as well, as users start using products in unexpected, sometimes unethical, ways.

Here, again, the only remedy to these biases are constant and fundamental awareness.

Research requires detachment from oneself, a willingness to look at the self and the way it influences the quality of data and reports.

In a similar vein, Verbeek argues (2006) that as experiences are phenomenal and meaning is embodied (attributed to products through the usage itself), the ethical implications of design should be explored in similar ways to testing other designed features: through careful testing and envisioning of a products' ethical implications.

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Experience Design Processes