Where is the ethical line for web designers?

Paul Boag

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.