Ethics and User Centered Design / User Experience

Scientific and technological progress themselves are value-neutral. They are just very good at doing what they do. If you want to do selfish, greedy, intolerant and violent things, scientific technology will provide you with by far the most efficient way of doing so. But if you want to do good, to solve the world’s problems, to progress in the best value-laden sense, once again, there is no better means to those ends than the scientific way.
Richard Dawkins

A former professor in organizational and work psychology gave a striking example of ethical problems when using psychological expertise. He said (IIRC): «You can use psychological theories to improve the efficiency of any charity, you can do the same to improve the efficiency of a concentration camp.»

Thing is, if you can observe, describe, explain, predict and control people’s experience and behavior (one definition of psychology), there is no in-build mechanism to stop you for using it for any purpose. Dawkins makes this point very well in the quotation above.

After having moved from the core of psychology to the intersection between human behavior and technology, I see the same problem with user-centered design and user experience in general.

To put it bluntly, you can do a user centered design process to iteratively improve the effectiveness, efficiency, satisfaction and learnability (one definition of usability) of any charity app. You can also use the same process to improve the effectiveness, efficiency, satisfaction and learnability of a gas chamber control station in a concentration camp.

Hopefully (almost) no one would be comfortable improving the UX of a gas chamber control station. And there are other areas that are no-gos for many — if not (almost) all – people. Just take torture. Any reasonably competent psychologist could find out ways to make torture methods more averse for the victim and less stressful for the torturer. It’s not that hard. And yeah, it’s one reason why the American Psychological Association explicitly prohibits psychologists from taking part in torture.

Standard 3.04 Avoiding Harm
(a) Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, organizational clients, and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.
(b) Psychologists do not participate in, facilitate, assist, or otherwise engage in torture, defined as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person, or in any other cruel, inhuman, or degrading behavior that violates 3.04(a).

BTW, this includes waterboarding, sexual humiliation, stress positions, and exploitation of phobias ( Luckily for anyone interested in BDSM, it says nothing about using these methods in your private life (“with whom they work”). And yeah, there are people using waterboarding in BDSM sessions.

Similarly, any reasonably competent usability expert could do the same for the torture equipment that is used. Ethical guidelines make sense here (if they have any practical effect).

But during an ethics workshop at an HCI conference last year, some participants objected to developing products for organizations like the military or even the car industry.

And this particular objection to an industry — rather than to specific actions — highlights the difficulty of drawing a line. Especially in a country and within a climate in which certain organizations are seen as public enemy (by some, it’s usually a loud minority who try to push their perspective on everyone).

Let’s use the military as example.

There is the view — in Germany — that you shouldn’t work for the military, or for companies who produce military equipment (incl. weapons). So-called peace activists are against the military and apparently see research and development in that area as detrimental to peace. Some universities prohibit research that is done for the military, and even try to prevent the use of their research by the military.

And granted, I’m talking (mostly) about Germany, and Germany does have a … unfortunate history when it comes to war.

In a way, that makes sense. Not necessarily in the «If there were no weapons, there would be no war.» view (hopefully no one is that naive, or do they want to remove hands and feet too? And teeth? And anything else?) But yeah, if weapons are available, there is — naturally — a higher risk that they are used. And Jingoism can be a problem. Not to mention other factors that lead to weapons being used.

And while I share the same goal of wanting peace, I think you can only have peace if you are able to defend yourself. And even then there are times when you have to go to war to defend values that are more important than peace. Freedom, for example. Just look at nations like Britain during World War II.

So, I don’t see a problem in improving the usability of military equipment. We do need a good military to be an assertive, self-determined and free nation. And an effective military needs the best equipment. This is one area in which badly designed products have immediate and lasting negative consequences.

In short, military force should not be used, but when it is used, it should work flawlessly. Soldiers are risking their lives for ours. We owe it to the people who have to do the fighting for us.

So, why talk about the military? Because it illustrates a point. Even with this example, there are differences in perspective. Further complicated by wanting the same goal, but seeing different means of achieving this goal. Some people want peace by abolishing weapons and a military (as being related to war), others by strengthening the military so war becomes something no one would want.

In short, even with ostensibly simple issues things become pretty complicated.

So, while I do have some ideas, I’d like to ask the question to the readers: How do you develop guidelines for UCD/UX?


P.S.: The Uzi is a shitty weapon. If anything needs more than one safety, there’s a problem. Even more so if you set it for single shot and it results in bursts. Granted, I did hit the target during my time doing the compulsory military service, but still, bad design. Kudos on using a block of wood, though.