The ethical line in user experience research

G.BunkerA moral compass is a necessary tool in all sectors of the industry, especially the practice of user experience says Gary Bunkerin this piece which first appeared in Encore

As someone who works in the field of ‘user experience’, I want to see technology work for people rather than against them. At its core, user experience –  or UX as those of us in the business call it – is about making things easier to use across digital channels and devices.

But just because the very idea of the practice I work with is making people’s lives better, it doesn’t mean those in the game know where the ethical line is.

In my career I’ve witnessed moments that cross a very clear line. I’ve had a business ask me how they could get around a legal requirement to disclose information about their product – information extremely pertinent to the decision to purchase. I’ve seen people running a usability test using a pan and tilt camera to zoom down participants’ tops. I’ve seen a pushy executive burst into a test room and harangue a horrified test subject for being “too stupid to see the damn button”. In each case, I stopped proceedings immediately and did what I could to put it right.

But it concerns me that not everyone may have the same internal moral compass. I would hope that most of us would refuse, for example, to push user-testing participants to break down in tears. Most of us would hopefully push back against requests we saw as unethical. Most of us would not run research or create design that deliberately misdirects or causes damage, but the potential is there – and for some the ends may justify the means. But I don’t agree. I believe a code of conduct is needed in the field of user experience and beyond and it should be based on three core constructs:

1. Do no harm. Just as in the medical code of ethics, our core directive should be one of nonmaleficence. It’s a simple rule, and one that should be particularly directed at the research and analysis stages.

2. Abide by industry codes of conduct. We should always adhere to the unique codes of conduct relating to the industry we are working within. Many industries, particularly those with the potential to cause harm, have either a regulatory or voluntary code of conduct specific to the field. User experience specialists working within that industry should understand and abide by the same standards.

3. Abide by a code of practice. There is no such thing just yet for user experience, but I believe strongly that we should create one. It should speak to how we respect both the business and the user, during research, analysis, design and testing phases. Privacy, honesty and respect should be core elements.

I’ve always followed my own moral compass, as I’m sure we all have – but it’s time we found a stronger, clearer and more consistent line to avoid tripping over.

Gary Bunker is head of UX strategy at The Fore. 

Encore issue 19This article first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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