Ethics of Web Design in 2017: How We Can Do Our Best

I recently gave a talk to the Refresh Pittsburgh Web tech group called Ethics of Web Design in 2017: How We Can Do Our Best. This was the first run for the talk. I’ve posted my script for it here.

About Randy

My name is Randy Oest and I’ve been a designer in the industry since 1997. Right now I’m a designer and frontend engineer with Four Kitchens and I spend my professional development time thinking too much on topics like Ethics.

I’m also the co-host of Four Kitchens podcast, Sharp Ideas, and in our last season we took a closer look at the ethics of our industry. We talked with people of all stripes about this topic.

Tonight I’m going to talk about our responsibilities towards people. Users. Clients. Coworkers. And ourselves.

How do we define Ethics?

If you’re anything like me, you get the definitions of Ethics and Morals confused, so let’s set that straight right out of the gate.

Morals are concerned about what is right or wrong with our character. Some morals are easy. Stealing is wrong. Donating to charity is right. But the waters get muddy pretty quickly. How do we handle projects that are dramatically over budget or under budget? What debt do we owe the open source projects that we use? How do we treat employees when a project turns sour? Defining these morals are a lot more complicated.

So let’s turn our eye to defining Ethics. Ethics are a collection of moral principles, and usually they come as a set. Everyone has a work ethic. For some, their work ethic focuses on achieving success while others focus on working for the weekend. I’m willing to bet that all of you here tonight are the former.

So now that we’ve defined morals and ethics, I’d like to talk with you about my own ethics for the web design. Let’s start by destroying the world.

Part 1: The World

Destroying the World Accidentally

Everything that we do has unintended consequences in the world. I think that life is like a boat that I’m driving through the water and no matter how slow or fast I travel that boat leaves a wake. The ripples from that wake spread out near and far, sometimes softly and sometimes violently. I made them and I am responsible for them.

Everything we put into the world, we are responsible for, even when things don’t go the right way. We must design and build systems wisely.

Gender Inputs

Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.
— computer scientist Jon Postel

Let’s talk about the growing definition of gender in the world today. Does a binary choice—male, female—encompass a site’s user’s sense of self? That person could have been born one gender and identify with the other. They could be in a state of transition.

This information may be dangerous for the person to share. If this gender information gets shared the wrong way, to the wrong people, lives are at risk.

As the makers, we have a responsibility to question the decisions and desires that cause harm to our users. Why are we collecting information about gender? Is this information critical for your service or product?

As a father gender weighs heavily into my life. Is this a toy for a girl or a boy? There is a simple flow chart that solves this that reads, “Do you operate the toy with your genitalia?” If yes, it ISN’T A CHILD’S TOY.

Sidewalk Ramps

Not all unintended consequences lead to mayhem.

Sidewalk ramps, also called curb cuts, are mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. They go as far back as the 1940s in Michigan as a pilot project to aid employment of disabled veterans.

The purpose of curb cuts are to help those with disabilities to more easily get around neighborhoods. The slight ramp makes it easier for those in wheelchairs to cross the street.

Once curb cuts were installed they had a surprising impact—they benefited everyone. Mothers with strollers didn’t have to jostle a sleeping baby over a harsh curb and joggers didn’t trip as they were out getting their miles in. Kids could more easily ride their bikes up and down the sidewalks.

So not all unintended consequences will destroy the world. Some of them make the world an even better place than we planned. We have to celebrate the accidental victories too.

So Don’t Destroy the World, Okay?

Unintended consequences are blind spots. Everyone has them, so how do you overcome them? You do this through a diversity of experience. Get different points of views. Engage with people who have dramatically different world views than you and your team. Consider not only age, sex, race, and money, but consider also a person’s state of mind, such as grieving, stressed, or distracted.

By assuming responsibility for what we put out in the world we think about it a little bit more. We work to prevent problems and push for better outcomes, which makes the world a little better.

Part 2: People

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

As Mr. Sloan always says, there is no “I” in team, but there is an “I” in pie. And there’s an “I” in meat pie. Anagram of meat is team… I don’t know what he’s talking about.
— Shaun, Shaun of the Dead

I don’t like the word “Teamwork”. It is a perfectly serviceable word but it is a little too corporate speak for me. When I work on a project, I’m all in, working each week with everyone, solving hard problems, arguing over things little and large, and celebrating the victories of the project.

So I like the term “Work Family” better. It has the right mix of strong bonds and perseverance, with just a hint of dysfunction.

Now when I talk about work-family, I’m talking about everyone on the project, not just everyone under the same corporate flag. Your clients are your coworkers on projects.

Everyone on a project brings expertise to the table so that you can all work towards your goals. Your client is the subject matter expert. They know their industry inside and out, just like you know UX or development.

Transparency and Talking

As the experts in the project’s process we have to help guide everyone towards success. Some folks need more guidance than others and those are opportunities to help a person grow. There are two things that contribute to a good work family—transparency and frequent conversations.

The number one thing that you can do as part of a team is to be open and honest. This transparency helps keep everyone informed on how things are going. Being transparent is scary, but only at first. As you get used to sharing things you’ll find that others will become more understanding and open and this helps empathy to grow. Other people will start to speak more openly and the project will be better as a result.

The companion to transparency is frequent communication. Don’t take your assignment, agree to have it done in two weeks, and then disappear until the deadline. Set daily meetings. They don’t have to belong. Sometimes I have a client stand up meeting with ten people that takes less than ten minutes. (And sometimes it takes an hour.) Talk about what you’re working on, raise questions early, and listen to everyone.

Now a lot of what I’ve just said sounded like it was centered around clients but the reality is these same principles apply to internal meetings.

This recipe—transparency and talking—helps to solve problems before they get too big while helping everyone bond with each other.

Part 3: Open Source

So in keeping with the values I’ve shared with you so far, I must be honest and tell you that I’ve edited out the portion of the talk on Open Source. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject and this section was turning into a deep rabbit hole, so I’ll just say this—contribute back with time, or money, or even word of mouth.

Part 4: You

I’ve saved the best part of this talk for last. You. Let that sink in. The most important part of this is you. You are wonderful, brilliant people.

I see two big problems that people have in our industry—people don’t take care of themselves and folks feel like imposters.

Let’s start with taking care of yourself. If you’re anything like me, you don’t take care of yourself. I’m a workaholic. I spend all day doing work for Four Kitchens and then I spend my evenings doing work for Amazing Rando Design, my own design company. I average 5-6 hours of sleep a night and I’m almost always a caffeinated zombie during the day.

I’ve put a higher priority on my projects than I do my own well being. This isn’t good for me. I’ve started to burn out and if I keep going this isn’t going to end well. And so I’ve made myself into a project. I’m hacking myself to find ways to trick me into doing what I have to do. I now have my own todo list on my phone that are things that I have to do for me. Meditation, gym, and writing in a daily journal. I’m finding that focusing on taking care of me is making my life better everywhere. So I’m going to ask you to please take care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Eat moderately well. Go for walks.

The next thing that I want to talk about is imposter syndrome. As I mentioned in my introduction I’ve been doing design work for 20 years. I’ve done work for companies big and small, won plenty of awards, and saw returns on a client’s projects so high that I was sad that I didn’t ask to get paid in equity.

Yet just a few weeks ago I had a breakdown at work. I had a client who was being incredibly tough and opinionated on design. I did 20+ style tiles for them and none of them made them met their needs and our deadline was quickly approaching. After weeks of going back and forth I started to think that I was an imposter. I’ve tricked people into thinking that I was a designer, I’m no good, I’m lousy. I just broke down.

I’m here to tell you that from time to time we all feel like imposters. But we aren’t. We’re talented people with strengths and weaknesses. If you ever feel like you don’t belong, look to your strengths and look to your successes. You’re an important part of this community. Never doubt that.

In Conclusion

Tonight we’ve talked about a lot of things that relate to the Ethics of Web Design. We talked about how we are going to keep an eye on the things that we put out into the world to make sure that we aren’t accidentally doing harm. We talked about how clients and coworkers are part of your work family and how we can mold that into something better by being transparent and talking often. We skipped talking about open source. And lastly, we talked about how you’re never an imposter, and how taking care of yourself is vital.

The last thing that I’d like to do is ask a favor of you. Sometime tomorrow (not tonight) talk about what we’ve discussed here tonight with someone. Keep this conversation going.

Thank you.