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With Great Power: The Ethics of Design in a Digital World

The husband of a friend of mine works in the bakery department at a Whole Foods store, and we were recently talking about Amazon’s automation aspirations for the grocer. I was surprised to find we had very divergent views on the topic. Where I saw progress and the potential to improve the shopping experience for the masses, she saw the loss of jobs and a deliberate attempt to de-humanize the experience.

While I’m no stranger to these issues (my design work has frequently been a replacement for a manual, human-based process), her stance made me think about how the design of experiences, even when done well, can have big (sometimes unintended) consequences.

Facebook was founded on the notion that connecting people would “bring the world closer together” and allow friends and family to “share and express what matters to them.” In hindsight perhaps this mission seems naïve, but at the time, how could the experience designers behind Facebook have predicted the use of their platform to mislead and manipulate?

In my talk, I will explore how ethics can be layered into the design of digital products, including:

  • Common ethical pitfalls (including examples of projects where ethics were, or should have been, considered)
  • The roles we all play in creating ethical products
  • How to leverage the human-centered design process to identify and address a product’s hidden, unintended consequences
  • Dealing with conflicts of interest between client, user, and community
  • What to do when something doesn’t feel right

Video provided by University of Minnesota Information Technology Department (IT@UMN)