Where is the ethical line for web designers?

The web community has been talking a lot about our ethical responsibilities, but should these come before our responsibility to our clients and our business?

As the web matures and we learn more about user behaviour, we are beginning to discover how easy it is to manipulate people online. Add to this our growing knowledge of marketing and psychology, and it is hardly surprising that the issue of ethics has been raised.

Websites such as Dark Patterns highlight the seedy belly of UX design as it attempts to manipulate people into doing things they will later regret.

Whether this is purposely making privacy options confusing in order to trick people into sharing more information than they are comfortable with, or spamming friends on social networks without their explicit permission, many of us are asked to do things that we are not comfortable with.

Goodread will spam your twitter friends unless you spot a tiny checkbox.
Behaviour like spamming social networks may not be illegal but is it something you are willing to participate in?

Although not illegal, this type of behaviour is damaging to the user experience, the ultimate success of the client’s website and your personal reputation.

However, is it our place to refuse to implement these dark patterns? If a client is paying us, and if they choose to reject our advice, should we simply do as we are told?

This is not just about our responsibility towards our clients, it’s also about the profitability of our business. If we refuse to undertake work we consider unethical we are in effect turning away money. Should we do this in order to stand by principles even if that damages us financially?

If a client asks us to do something that is illegal then the conversation is much more black and white. However, in the world of ethics the challenges are more complex.

I believe this is an important subject and one I would like to discuss as part of our debate season on the podcast. Therefore:

This house proposes that web designers should refuse to do work they consider unethical.

Do you agree with the house? Where would you draw the line? Are there examples of where you have chosen to turn away work you considered unethical? Alternatively, do you believe that this position is naive? Or do you feel that our responsibility towards our clients outweighs ethical considerations? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

  • richarddale

    I definitely think mobile sites have their place. Many of the sites I built prior to RWD, static sites that view great on desktop and tablet. Its only when you get down to smart phone size that things start to break down. For many of these sites a mobile specific site would probably work better than a RWD site where I could be more focused and target the medium specifically.

    I did a RWD e-commerce website recently and although the end results were good, trying to get the shopping basket working and looking correct whilst being responsive was a nightmare and I couldn’t help but think that a mobile specific site would have been a better solution. When I browse the web using my iPad Air I never visit a fix width website and think this is a poor user experience why don’t they have a RWD site. I ony ever think this when on my iPhone.

  • sanedevil

    I am not a web designer, but have a team that is building one for me. So in trad way, I have to have a “web designer” design the site in Photoshop which is then handed to “web developer” to generate code.

    You can imagine there are several problems w this – time, costs, rework, code doesn’t do what the design shows etc.

    I hit upon your blog while thinking if there are tools that would eliminate the design-to-code step

    I very much agree w the house and would love to know the process and tools to help achieve this.

  • David R

    The simple answer is yes, a website must be responsive and also Google is focusing more on responsive websites, a static design
    web development firm still works OK in most cases when you have separate mobile friendly website.