10 Principles of Ethical Design

A list of ethical design solutions

Angela Huang
6 min readAug 5, 2022
Photo by fauxels on Pexels
Photo by fauxels on Pexels

When working in a particular field, it is all too common to lose focus on the benefits that a product brings to a user. This is very true in the design sphere, where designers often believe that they know what is best and lose focus on what the user prefers. But when the focus shifts from what is best for the client to what is best for the company, customers begin to question the honesty of the web resource.

Those striving to set up a trustworthy website must utilize ten important yet straightforward ethical design principles as recommended by the world’s leading designers from professional UX consulting companies. Let’s take this time to talk about these human centered design principles.

Request Permission

Many companies quickly use their users to their advantage by performing unsolicited actions, collecting user information (geographical and personal), starting reaching out to their contacts, and publishing unwanted posts to the user’s profile. This violates any trust that the user potentially has in the site, and it is a surefire way to wreck a site’s reputation.

Not only should permission be asked of the user, but it should also be done overtly and directly. There shouldn’t be wordplay or fine print that binds the user. Sites should have their intent front and center, asking the user’s permission along the way. If the consent is granted in that case, the user will be unlikely to have complaints. Plus, they will respect that the company showed respect and interest in their preferences.

Send Notifications

Many sites offer a free trial to test out their otherwise paid service. However, most of those who do, do not inform those users who sign up when the service is offered. They hope that users will forget to cancel their subscription, and they can debit the money, sneaking in at least one payment that they do not need to refund since the user didn’t take the necessary action.

This type of inaction hurts a company’s integrity. It is very obvious to users what the company is trying to pull off in this case. The more upfront approach would see a company send a letter or email about the end of a trial version, advising a user on what to do if they wish to keep the service or cancel it. Primary streaming services like Netflix take this upfront strategy.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Accept Negative Aspects

When a product encounters an issue, a shortcoming is found, or a gap in some aspect of the service is identified, many companies will hide it or not disclose it for a while until it is addressed. The more ethical way is to highlight the negatives. This presents the clients with the choice of whether they wish to keep the poor service or terminate it. While this may have some subscribers jump ship, many will stay on because they believe it’s worth it, and they will have respect for the open nature that the company took with them. Honesty is the best policy, as the saying goes.

Offer Fair Pricing

One of the biggest promotional cons is advertising a service for a particular price to draw an audience. However, most companies avoid including additional costs (taxes, fees, etc.) in that price. The user may get excited about a good deal, only to find out that it costs significantly more than expected. Whether they end up ordering the service or product anyway is beside the point. They will feel disappointed in the deceptive nature of the advertising, and that will stay with them for the long term.

To avoid this type of reaction, it is best to be upfront about your costs, including taxes, delivery charges, and other miscellaneous fees. This will keep the client informed of the price, so there is no confusion when they are ready to purchase.

Be Impressions-Driven, Not Profi-Motivated

If you are looking at several proposals and evaluating which to go with, always choose the one that will make clients happy. Sure, it may slow down the potential revenue stream, but it will prioritize the users, and they will take notice. So while you may get a short surge of profits upfront, the customer-satisfaction method will ensure long-term customer loyalty that will yield profits steadily down the line.

Don’t Spam

Spam is one of the most hated things in the web space. Not only is starting an advertising campaign through unsolicited messages annoying to the recipients, but it is also costly and overwhelmingly ineffective. Instead, it is better to supply clients with just interesting information to them.

An excellent way to know if the user might be interested in receiving further mailings is by seeing if they performed the targeted action after receiving the communication. If they did not, likely, they are not interested, in which case they should come off the mailing list. This respects the user’s decision and preference and doesn’t frustrate them that they will no longer wish to be customers.

Make Unsubscribing Easier

Most mailing lists have an unsubscribe option, but often it is obscurely hidden in fine text in some discreet bottom part of the mailing. This means that users are often unaware that unsubscribing from the mailing is an option. Many users think they have to call in and talk to an operator, jumping through many hoops to get off the list. So they tolerate it without any benefit to the company. This does cause detriment because all this does annoy the users.

Unsubscribing should be given to the users as a choice. If they want to stay on, they won’t bother unsubscribing. Still, they will appreciate a clear and explicit way, such as a prominent unsubscribe button, in that the company is presenting them with a choice rather than tricking them into staying on the mailings.

Don’t Choose For Users

Many electronic agreement forms and questionnaires default in answers that the company prefers to have answered in a particular manner. If users neglect to uncheck the pre-checked boxes, and their expectations of what they think they are getting don’t match what they get, they will be frustrated and disappointed in the product.

This is one of the most straightforward ethical problems to fix. All you need to do is make no default selections for users. The most egregious variant is when a box with small text is checked off by default, saying that the user wants to receive additional mailings. If the user truly wants that, they can figure out how to check a box for it. Some companies think this is helpful, but that presumes that every user wants to subscribe by default, which is simply ridiculous.

Transparency Is Key

Many details of an agreement are sneakily buried in the Privacy Policy. No one sits and reads that policy, so hiding something to trick the user into a contract they don’t want is low and unethical. Yet, it can be done by the great majority of services? This is a mistake because all this results in mistrust from the users.

Honest Offers Only

Don’t insult a user’s intelligence with gimmicky sales and promotions, claiming they need to “buy now or miss out.” especially when it isn’t true. It’s the oldest trick in the design book to say, “buy now; promotion ends soon,” After purchasing to get in on the deal, the user then finds out the promotion has another week to go. Therefore persuading people into quicker purchases is dishonest and can be called unethical design.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels

Final Thought on Ethical Design Practices

Place yourself in the role of the customer. Would you prefer to be misled, suckered into hidden agreements, or showered with false promises? If you did, you would lose trust and upset a potentially good relationship you had or could have had with the customer. The more honest and direct your approach, the more appreciation the users will deliver back to you.

Thank you for reading!