The social dilemma: Ethics and UX

6 min read David Renwick

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In September of 2020, Netflix released a new documentary called The Social Dilemma. For many viewers, much of the information likely came as a surprise. Could social media and technology really be behind some of the biggest societal changes and rifts in the past decade?

For UX designers and UXers working in technology, the documentary likely surfaced these feelings – and more. And, after viewing the Social Dilemma, many of these same people will be asking themselves 2 questions: “Am I part of the problem?” and “How do I fix this?”.

The social dilemma: Some not-so-light viewing material

If you haven’t already seen it, the documentary is worth watching. It posits that technology (but more specifically social media) is influencing the way people think, leading to real-world impacts. The growing political divides, fracturing of democracies and rise in mental illness all have a direct line to technology.

With that said, the documentary does dramatize the issue somewhat and doesn’t give much weight to the positive effects that technology and social media have had on our society. It can’t be discounted just how useful social media has been for organizing positive movements and bringing people together as a force for good.

Now that we’ve recapped the documentary (you should definitely still watch it if you haven’t already), it’s time we explore exactly what’s going on here – and what you can do about it.

Credit: Netflix

Persuasive design and technology

The next time you open a messaging app to talk to a friend, notice everything that’s layered over the core function of the app (to facilitate a conversation between 2 people). In the case of Facebook Messenger, there’s the ‘Active Status’ function to show you which of your contacts are online and when they were last online, chat bubbles to indicate that someone is typing and ‘Read receipts’ to indicate whether or not someone has read a message that you’ve sent.

These elements of user interfaces fall under a broader category called persuasive technology or persuasive design.

So what is persuasive technology?

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, persuasive design is an area of design practice focused on influencing user behavior through the characteristics of a product or service.

“Based on psychological and social theories, persuasive design is often used in e-commerce, organizational management, and public health. However, designers also tend to use it in any field requiring a target group’s long-term engagement by encouraging continued custom,” the Foundation notes.

Media has always had a large part to play in influencing human behavior, but the rapid proliferation of interactive technology in the 21st century has meant that the potential for technology to influence how we think and act has increased immensely.

“The advancing sophistication of resources available to designers means tailoring the user experience by weaving persuasive elements into it is achievable in increasingly discreet ways than were available in earlier years.”

This area of design was first pioneered by the Director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, B. J. Fogg. By understanding core factors such as motivation, triggers and ability, Fogg explains that designers can achieve their desired behaviors in users without needing to resort to tactics like deception and coercion.

The Social Dilemma reveals the dark side of persuasive design. So-called dark patterns run rife through social media apps; the previously-mentioned chat bubbles and the ‘pull to refresh feature’ (mirroring a slot machine) are just 2 examples.

The silver lining

By now it should be clear that persuasive design isn’t a force for evil – far from it, in fact. This subset of design can – and is – used for many positive purposes, like apps that encourage you to stand up, drink water and go for a walk. This makes persuasive design a useful area to understand – both for awareness of dark patterns and for the many ways in which these approaches can be used for good.

Guide: How to fix the problem

As much as many of us are drawn to the idea of the quick fix, fixing the problems we’ve outlined above will take time – and commitment. We’ve pulled together some thinking and resources for web designers, user researchers, usability testing experts and more.

Design ethics

When considering the implications of persuasive design, it’s a good idea to take one step back and think about design ethics. Trine Falbe, writing for Smashing Magazine, describes ethical design as “design made with the intent to do good”. 

Understandably, there’s a large number of areas that designers (and researchers) will want to consider when thinking about design ethics, including:

  • Privacy
  • Accessibility
  • Usability
  • Sustainability
  • User involvement
  • Focus

A List Apart has a great article which expands some of these areas and more. There’s also this article on Medium: ‘How to Design With Ethics’.

User research

Sitting beneath user involvement is UX research or user research. Primarily, UX research involves using various research methods to gather information about your end users. This is obviously useful from a design and product point of view, allowing us to test new functionality and draw out new insights.

Whether conducting usability tests or user interviews, user research is the best way to connect with the people you’re developing your product or service for.

From an ethical design standpoint, we need to consider both how we communicate with our users and what we do with the research data that we collect by talking to them. The Little Book of Design Research Ethics covers some of the key principles to follow when carrying out design research.

Practice good user habits

Beyond the work you do as a designer of products and services, you can also practice better user habits to build up your understanding of just how persuasive some of these persuasive design techniques can be.

Here are some things to try:

  • Cut back: Turn off notifications for pesky apps and uninstall social apps from your phone or tablet.
  • Change how you get news: Instead of relying on news delivered through your social feeds, find a selection of news websites and visit them directly.
  • Reach for a book instead of your phone: When there’s a lull in whatever it is you’re doing, think before you reach for your phone.
  • Share more with friends and family, not your feed: Self explanatory. Reach out to your friends and family when you have exciting news to share, not your social media accounts. 

Wrap up

The social dilemma has raised some interesting questions about the ethicacy of modern technology – particularly social media. Technology can be a powerful force for good, but as we’ve seen, there are downsides and dark patterns we cannot afford ignore.

As UX designers and researchers, you’ve got a lot of power to drive positive change within your community and organization. Change can start in your next user interface design meeting.