Design ethics books

Ruined by Design by Mike Monteiro and The Ethical Design Handbook by Trine Falbe, Kim Andersen, and Martin Michael Frederiksen
TL;DR: If you want passionate, angry inspiration and high-level advice, read Ruined by Design. If you want good case studies and scattered tactical tips, read the Ethical Design Handbook.

If you, like me, are practicing social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 at the moment, you’ve found yourself with a little extra spare time. Why not use some of that time to learn more about ethics?

Ethics is a hot topic in the design world. Over the decade of the 2010s, big tech went from being adored (at least in my limited circles) to being viewed with much more suspicion. Companies overstepped their bounds in many controversies.

Mike Monteiro’s “Ruined by Design” was named the 2019 book of the year by Design.cc.

Smashing magazine’s “The Ethical Design Handbook” by Trine Falbe, Kim Andersen, and Martin Michael Frederiksen is hot off the presses this very month (March 2020).

I recently read both these books. I’m glad I did, but I was surprised by how different they were. If you’re thinking of reading these books, this article will reduce that surprise factor for you.

Similarities

Both books touched on specific codes of ethics, data collection, and dark patterns.

Codes of ethics

Ruined by Design (RbD) kicks off with the great Designer’s code of ethics, a simple yet powerful list of ten tenets of ethical design.

The Ethical Design Handbook (EDH) includes several similar ethical frameworks, including the Privacy by Design framework and the Ethical Design Manifesto.

Data collection

Both books took a stand against unnecessary data collection. This line sums it up:

A lot of data is collected ‘because we can’ or because ‘maybe it could be used in the future’. That’s obviously a problem. The general rule is that you should not collect data that you have no use for or that you don’t have time to analyze.”

Ethical Design Handbook

I’m the type of person who still has high school essays on my Dropbox, so this was surprising to me. It’s harmless to be a digital hoarder when it comes to old files or photos, but NOT when it’s sensitive data about real humans.

Dark patterns

EDH gave several examples of dark patterns, such as “sneak into basket”, and explains why these are bad for business long-term. RbD touches on dark patterns but doesn’t linger.

Dark patterns are the low-hanging fruit of design ethics… Level 1 shit. That’s the level of the video game where you learn how the character moves, how far you can jump, and how the world is laid out. If you can’t succeed at this level, you don’t get to go to Level 2.

Ruined by Design

RbD focuses more on “Level 2 shit”.

What’s different about Ruined by Design

Ruined by Design was exactly what I expected. If you like Mike Monteiro, this book will not disappoint. If you don’t know him, check out his Medium post Design’s Lost Generation before reading the book.

Long story short, Ruined by Design is angry and sweary and uncomfortable and extreme, yet inspiring and hopeful.

Monteiro fills half of his book with heart-wrenching examples of tech companies being terrible. The other half of the book focuses on what you, a designer, can do about it. This book was a page-turner for me because it was entertaining and inspiring.

Steps for speaking up

My big takeaway from Ruined by Design is that I, as a designer, have more power than I thought. I can (and should) ask why. Why are we building this? Why now? Why not this other thing? Even if it’s my boss or my boss’s boss that I’m asking. I’m not going to get fired for doing that. Also, if I have concerns with the answers I hear, I’m not going to get fired for voicing them. Chances are, that boss didn’t see what I see and will appreciate me pointing it out. If not, then flip the table and leave.

As a designer, that’s my job. That’s why I am employed. To point out the things I see. To ask questions. To make things better. For the business but more importantly for the people that the business serves.

In other words, if you see something you don’t agree with:

  1. Say something. If that doesn’t work,
  2. Rally the troops. If that doesn’t work,
  3. Leave

Licensing

Mike Monteiro is an outspoken supporter of licensing the design profession.

Not doing the job correctly should have a cost. A doctor who steps outside their ethical framework loses the ability to practice medicine… A designer who builds a tool to lie to a regulatory body is likely to get a promotion. Time to end that bullshit.

Ruined by Design

I agree. I used to be an engineer. In Canada, you’re not allowed to call yourself an engineer unless you meet strict requirements. These requirements include education, professional experience, professional development, and an ethics exam. When I pivoted my career into design, it was weird that there was no real gatekeeper or regulatory body. This would be great for the discipline of design. Unfortunately, the steps required to actually make this happen aren’t yet clear.

Getting in the room

Before reading RbD, I used to shoot down meeting invitations if I didn’t think there was going to be a UX impact. That way, I could use my time on actually designing instead of sitting through boring meetings.

Now, I see the value in being “in the room” even when there’s no obvious impact on the user experience. Because every decision eventually has an impact on the user experience.

Let’s deal with the real reason we don’t ask to be in these conversations… they’re often boring. I get that. You’d rather be doing something else… But then shit hits our desk… We may even want to discuss it, which is more difficult now because all the decision-makers will tell you the time for discussion came and went. So, we roll our eyes and we execute it. That’s a shitty way to do the job. We’re gatekeepers… mind the gate.

Ruined by Design

What’s different about The Ethical Design Handbook

The Ethical Design Handbook (EDH) was less passionate but more tactical than RbD. The case studies and actionable tips were great.

Case Studies

To me, the best part about EDH was the case studies and real world examples of organizations doing good work. The book does a great job at highlighting best practices of Duck Duck Go, Typeform, and even LINGsCARS (the most beautiful website in the world, at least in my opinion).

Actionable tips

I also expect to get a lot of value from some of the specific tips that EDH offers on everything from invoking cultural change to roadmap planning. They are very thorough, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but the topics included:

  • Cultural change
  • Road map planning
  • KPIs for organizational ethics
  • Offboarding

Many people leave not because they don’t like the service, but just because they don’t need it any longer. So, instead of annoying them when they want to cut costs, we can make them feel appreciated.

The Ethical Design Handbook on Offboarding

This was huge for me because I’d never considered offboarding before. I didn’t even know it had a name!

My one complaint about EDH

The Ethical Design Handbook lacked cohesion. It seemed to jump all over the place and occasionally repeated itself clumsily.

This was most evident in the section on cookie disclaimers. On one page, it said that “less than 5% of the 5,000 most popular websites in the EU provide a visible choice to decline data-sharing”. Then on the very next page it lists the three purposes of cookie disclaimers, including “offer a way for the user to either accept or decline the usage of cookies”. Then it asked the reader to “guess which one most don’t do”. Uhhhh… You literally just said which one… One page ago.

Back in high school and university I often had group writing projects. In these projects, we’d all write our own sections and then send them to a “compiler”: someone in the group who volunteered to put them together the separate sections. The compiler often stitched the sections together without a lot of proofreading or smoothing of transitions.

At times, EDH was reminiscent of those group writing projects.

Again, there is a lot of concrete, actionable advice in there. You just need to get past the repetition and varying voices.

What did you think?

Have you read either of these books? Both of them? Comment below to let me know what you thought of them and what your key takeaways were.

Not gonna read them? That’s cool too. What were your key takeaways from this post?

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