Designing with ethics at IxD19 Education Summit

How might designers draw ethical thinking through the design process?

[ Pun intended. ]

This was the question at the heart of our most recent public workshop, “Beyond Frameworks: Designing with Ethics,” at the IxDA Education Summit in Seattle.

(IxDA stands for Interaction Design Association, and while the exact definition of interaction design is up for discussion, the association explains it like so: “Interaction Design (IxD) defines the structure and behavior of interactive systems. Interaction Designers strive to create meaningful relationships between people and the products and services that they use, from computers to mobile devices to appliances and beyond.”)

While our work at the lab typically involves adapting design methodology for critical ethical thinking in “non-design” applications (such as data privacy or international diplomacy), this was an opportunity to turn our lens back on the field of design. Workshop participants included interaction design educators and professionals—including designers from Amazon, Home Depot, and more. In the span of two hours, we led participants through a series of exercises aimed at helping students and practitioners to recognize the values and tensions often buried in the weeds of their work, and to surface these insights and questions to propel their creative process in a responsible way.

We organized the workshop into a three-part arc:

1) Visualizing Values: Moral Awareness & Imagination

To begin, we asked participants to individually brainstorm their organization’s values, their profession’s values, and any personal values not covered by the first two. Groups then sorted and named these values. We found participants brought such a wide range of responses to this initial prompt that we could have taken the entire workshop just on this moment. What are we describing with terms like “peace of mind” and “convenience”? Which values might be indicative of other, intrinsic values not explicitly identified? How do people manage the relationship between privacy and security?

2) Critique in Context: Moral Discernment

Next, we introduced a case study perfectly set at the intersection of human and technological systems: Amazon Key for Home. This internet of things example (combining smart locks, home security cameras, and online retail) immediately raised discussions of convenience, safety, accessibility, privacy, and trust. How might designers integrate these ethical dimensions into their critical and creative process?

Participants dove into the service’s technical details by storyboarding the interaction from multiple perspectives, analyzing the technology’s embedded values, and noting their potential implications.

With this in mind, participants returned to their work in the first stage to create a “value bank” — four values worthy of promotion — with which to critique the technology and its effects (intended or otherwise).

Using these values as a guide, they “took a walk” along a provided service blueprint, each critiquing the product experience from the point of view of a different stakeholder—the customer, the delivery person, an Amazon shareholder, or an interaction designer working on the product. With these perspectives in mind, the groups interrogated how (and where) the Key experience supports or hinders the values they proposed to promote.

Workshop participants assess an in-home package delivery service using their identified values as a metric success.

3) Lean to Action: Moral Agency

In the final minutes of the workshop, participants used their findings to point to opportunities within the design process for addressing their concerns. Spoiler: Focus groups and prototype testing emerged as the most frequent responses.

As the workshop participants demonstrated, designers are actively seeking ways to develop their moral agency and build ethical critique into their daily practice. In the days following the Education Summit, ethics was a primary theme of the industry conference, with three sessions dedicated to raising questions and discussion: Ethics & Design, Ethical is the New Beautiful, and AI & Ethics. Molly Wright Steenson labeled 2018 & 2019 the “Years of Ethics,” and the theme of this year’s World Interaction Design Day is Trust & Responsibility. [ More on that later! ]

Some of the other ethics approaches presented at the conference included Gabriel White’s Ethical Heuristics for Design, Will Anderson & Karwai Ng’s conscious design principles (plus Iceberg canvas), Artefact Group’s Tarot Cards of Tech, and Microsoft’s “Judgement Call” card game.