The Ethics of User Experience

UX is the future of digital.

Those involved in the world of User Experience are the single most important people in the future of the digital industry — not developers, strategists, designers or creatives — but User Experience professionals.

Why on earth am I saying this?

Well the seed of this thought (which you are completely entitled to disagree with) comes from an unusual source — let me explain a little….

A brief forgotten history of the digital market

I’m from an age where digital and tech were there to make the world a better place. When I started in digital, before it was digital (in the late 90’s) there was the feeling there was a shared objective and goal, to break down historical barriers to equality and unfairness. The internet and its integrated services were there to make the world a better place — to level the playing field — bring information and subsequent knowledge to those who may not have otherwise been able to access this.

Then (in my opinion) the industry lost its ethics and an understanding of its wider impact on society — it became a little like the oil and tobacco industries — in effect make money and fuck the consequences — we became wilfully blind (more on this later) to what we were (and weren’t) doing. We knew what we were building and developing and the way we were behaving wasn’t the most ethical way of doing things — but everyone else was doing — so what was the harm?

We forgot society and people in this race to build stuff, create agencies — and then sell them, do talks, beat the competition, be adaptive, responsive, track, analyse and monitor the hell out of everyone. The industry became arguably the most powerful in the world without knowing it. 
It became powerful, but wasn’t responsible…

Well in some ways it’s still not, right?

The fact that Facebook takes no responsibility for large swathes on content on its platform is appalling I’m sure you agree. They are just a platform they say — well, we all know that’s rubbish and as the number one source of news globally they need to grow up and publicly show that they understand the influence they have on parts of society.

The fact that Google takes the commercial buck/pound/euro from organisations on the same platform that allows terrorists (and their sympathisers) to post videos of beheadings is one thing. Only doing something about it when companies pull their ad spend is appalling and neatly summarises their entire approach to their social responsibilities -i.e. they think they have none.

But a news story made me think that times are changing, that digital leaders and companies have remembered where they have come from and why they exist, they are making a stand and looking to have a publicly explicit influence on society and it starts with the most obvious source of current frustration Donald J Trump.

Trump is the ethical saviour

Trump’s attempts at an immigration ban for seven (at the last count) mainly Muslim countries is clearly hugely offensive to me and anyone of a right-mind, but it has stirred something in the digital market.

Companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft are saying things are wrong, unfair. Not just for them as corporate actors but the individuals who work for them. They are stumping up money challenging the preposterous ban in court and thank heavens — the courts and agreeing with them.

And my hope is that some good may come from Trump, starting with this story. He’ll make people in digital (maybe except for Uber) realise what positive power they can hold and they’ll start to use it to advance society, to educate and honestly inform, to enable people to have truly fulfilling knowledgeable and therefore emotional (I think knowledge and emotion are intrinsically linked — that’s for another piece) experiences….

That’s where you as User Experience professionals come in…. You could be the ethical gatekeepers — to enhancing experiences, you are the whistle blowers for bad experiences and more importantly unethical behaviour and digital solutions.

It’s a challenge and is about repositioning UX professionals within the digital space.

I’m going to set the scene by looking at how we have allowed crap experiences and crap ethics happen across the digital space, from Amazon to Uber to Deliveroo, through ‘personalisation’, efficiency and perceived success.

The Three Levels of Experience

I believe that we have three initial levels of experience.

User — Easy and memorable TASK completion.
Customer — Multichannel equity.
Human — Life enhancing.
And there is a simple calculation.

User experience + Customer experience = Human experience.

Irrespective of if the experience is good or bad, what you experience as a user and a customer effects your wider human experience — whether a patient, a shopper or an employee.

We want to give people a great human experience, right? We want to make everything we do memorable, enjoyable etc. (add usability and UX adjectives of your choice in here).

But we don’t really mean that — we don’t care about people really. I’m going to hopefully prove that to you by highlighting how the digital products and services that we have created and all use daily have hugely negative ethical impacts on people and society. Also, how digital marketing ignores human needs and why creativity and the potential beauty that design can bring is being ignored to create functional experiences rather than life-enhancing ones.

In fact, I’m going to show you that everything that the digital industry set out not to do it is doing every single day and you and me are part of it.

The Personalisation Paradox — Twitter Echo Chambers and Amazon’s bad UX.

‘I swear I see my face in every window looking back at me’

This line is from a poem called I Wonder How Many People In This City by Leonard Cohen — which I think summarises my thoughts over personalisation rather well.

As humans, we see what we want to see — it’s an in-built reaction to something we don’t agree with or don’t want to understand. So, if someone disagrees with us in a meeting we rarely rationally listen to the other point of view — and hardly ever change our mind, rather we become more entrenched in our own beliefs.

This behaviour is replicated and magnified through personalisation — sure it is incredibly helpful for online grocery shopping or regular train tickets but for the news we read or the people we follow and listen to? I’m not so sure. 
If personalisation was not in place on Twitter — I have serious doubts whether Trump would be President, more Democrats and Liberals would have seen the growing support for him on social media and may have been better place to counter his (proven) lies and xenophobic rhetoric.

Sure, echo chambers have always existed, tribes have been in place literally forever- but they have never grown as quickly, they have never been more powerful or more unpredictable. Lies have been around since man could talk, but fake-news and the ability for it to be shared so quickly with no cause for recourse or editorial rigour is something completely new and to an extent unpredictable (which I wrote about — around 3 years ago — if you are interested).

By the way this article is not a slagging off Trump piece — there are enough of them around — I think the man is incredibly dangerous and stands for everything I despise in the world — but he played his game incredibly well.

Also with a UI hat on If Twitter was hard to use would Trump be able to use it? Maybe there are occasions when we need to make digital products harder to use for some people….

I’m sure you would agree that Amazon provide fantastic personalisation services, they provide an excellent customer experience, through the whole process of identifying, selecting and receiving your goods. Using Prime this can all take place in a matter of hours — as User Experience professionals we think these guys are the top of the tree. But what about Human experiences?

And here I come to an initial reinforcement of the fact that in the pursuit of great experiences we have created bad ones. Those packers and logistics guys that sleep in the warehouses and cabs are having shit experiences — as UX professionals we have an ethical responsibility to think about them.

We should not just focus on little Johnny getting his Lego bricks easily and quickly — if we work within the most powerful industry in the world with the huge impact on society that I’ve outlined we need to take responsibility for everyone’s experience in the ‘supply chain’ not just the first and last point of the ‘human journey’.

The fact that we haven’t (despite knowing poor experiences exist) is that we are ‘wilfully blind’.

This is where we fail to see — or admit to ourselves or our colleagues the issues and problems in plain sight… we prefer ignorance as we are afraid of questioning… (who questions a client’s ethics?). It can ruin private lives, careers and bring down organisations — numerous agencies, corporations and dare I say put politicians into office….

So, our implementation of personalisation;
Enhances the user experience
Supports the customer experience
Reduces the human experience

We need to flag the human experiences up with clients — sure they’ll still want things done as quickly as possible — but by highlighting the bad experiences of humans within the process, we may be able to create a more equitable and ultimately more human experience.

How do we do this practically? We appeal to the dual bottom lines of reputation and revenue.

For example, what would happen if Amazon allowed the packers and delivery guys to stamp their name on each package and run a marketing campaign from it? Raising the human connection between customer and company, raises the profile of the conditions and processes in place, which can lead to all round human improvements with no reduction in speed of service delivery.

The Accommodation of Marketing

“Half of what I say is meaningless…. but I say it just to reach you….”
The Beatles (for the line above is from a song called ‘Julia’) hit the nail on the head of Content Marketing about 50 years before it existed.

Throwing content at users because they are on a certain page or device, linking it to the beauty of personalisation (which as we have seen has serious flaws) or assuming they want to read an article that an agency copywriter has written can cause confusion and lengthen the time a user spends trying to find what they were initially looking for!

The accommodation of marketing into the digital space has also had a hugely detrimental effect on ethical experiences. Not that marketing is evil (it is a little) but our implementation of it using digital as an overarching channel has been shall we say suspect.

And on LinkedIn we see Like’s and comments such as ‘So True’….. jeez — do piss off — we are feeding this bullshit.

As User Experience professionals, we know it’s about working on a human level — we do not need marketers (who also know this) to tell us this — we need to work with them — or they need to let us work with them rather than treat the UX world as part of the build and development team… because when ethical UX professionals are not included in digital marketing campaigns some of the outcomes can be difficult to explain away… companies pulling their entire digital ad spend because someone didn’t consider the crap that is on YouTube and that all the best algorithms in the world cannot capture every single keyword or check every single tenuous relationship between content.

So, our implementation of digital marketing can;

Lengthen the user experience
Confuse the customer experience
Ignores the human experience.

Design, Creativity and UX

“There’s only one certainty that I am prepared to state my reputation on, tomorrow will be more creative than today.

There are those who believe big data, will be the answer to all their problems.

The idea that reducing us all to a set of algorithms that provides answers is of course laughable, but there will always be fools that believe this nonsense. 
It’s important to understand that technology creates opportunity but it’s creativity that creates the value”

Words from John Hegaty — one of the first initial members of the Saatchi and Saatchi team (after the brothers of course), co- founder of BBH, creator of the Levi 501 ad from the 80’s (look it up kids if you are too young to remember) and general creative market leader.

Clearly, in the age of automated marketing, learned behaviour, machine learning and artificial intelligence — these words may sound a little hollow. There are algorithms built into software that will create ads and engagement visuals for users as they dance around the web — all based on trends, history and analytics.

When we see something that is different we remember it — however good or bad. Sure, the recent Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner was an abomination — but that was based on a creative idea not algorithms — someone got the idea wrong — and to be honest so did senior people within Pepsi — but it didn’t come from trend analysis of online behaviour and it got attention….

Within digital we are creating formula’s for how people behave (and will behave) based on a tsunami of data — we are taking personas to the next level and beyond. We respond to (and develop solutions — be these technical or creative) to graphs in Google Analytics, lines in HubSpot and what people are telling us we need to be doing in the industry. This does make a level of sense — give people what they appear to want…

We forget that those doing the talking are from the very people that will benefit from us all doing the same thing — platform providers, be this Google, Salesforce, MS, AmazonWS etc. We forget that what gets the hairs on our own arms raised is creativity, something different — be this a song, a piece of art, a film.. more from Hegaty…..

“Why does Hollywood produce so many predictable boring movies? Because they are following a formula. There is nothing a formula led mindset likes more than a nice comfortable process.”

“You can take refuge in a process. Those in business who are formula led are always trying to find a way of processing your creative thought. They want to streamline it, they wanted to make it more predictable”

Does this ring any bells to you? Atomic web design? Pattern Libraries?

We follow processes — we should have processes for project and product delivery to make sure that we deliver work to the client needs, whilst making money and keeping our heads above water for a little longer but process within creative ideas — but making things predictable? Is that what good Human Experience is about? Maybe to get tasks completed but not to generate passion and need.

Effective and passionate design, creativity and UX;

Should excite the user experience
Should differentiate the customer experience from everything else
Should enable the human to remember and relieve the experience.

What’s the future hold for User Experience professionals?

I have no idea.

However — the best way to predict the future is to invent it… so…

1. Facebook, Google and Amazon will take over the web (if they haven’t already) — these centres of the web solar system will continue to be able to pull customers towards them in three of the main pillars of western life — Connecting, Learning and Shopping. This means that the digital industry will react to this and respond accordingly — thus more of the same look, feel and experiences…. Unless we start to think differently, as I hope I have outlined.

2. Advertising and Digital agencies will come together (no big surprise here…). They are becoming more and more intertwined and more and more reliant on each other — this will happen. This means that digital marketing will become more important in the creation and development of our digital solutions, creativity will be for marketing sake not completely focused on the user.

3. Clients will continue to bring talent in house. This is an easy one — the digital market will grow smaller in terms of the type of work that is being presented to agencies to pitch for and develop.

4. Because of all the above, agencies will need to specialise — digital agencies will not exist. Digital is business. Experience agencies will grow to encompass online, offline service and solution provision — both for customers and employees. User Experience professionals will be at the forefront of these new groups — they will likely be digital experts but have emotional and social awareness — they will be experience whistle-blowers' making sure that companies do not just engage, they excite and they do so in a way that works for society as a whole.

5. There will be a new coding revolution — for example CSSGrid will change the way in which web solutions and products are developed leading to quicker and more responsive and flexible load times and functionality.

6. Zero hour contracts will come into the digital space. Professionals will be paid only when they are needed — people will need to have a lattice of roles, skills and direct clients. This will result in Digital Workers Unions growing — with the same impact and effect that we see with Uber and Deliveroo in terms of workers rights.

7. UI will become virtual and verbal. Screens will become a thing of the past and because of this, UX professionals need to understand and start thinking about point 4 above…

Just some ideas — you may or may not agree with them…. But all I’m doing is being aware of wilful blindness….

…failing to see — or admit to ourselves or our colleagues — the issues and problems in plain sight… we prefer ignorance as we are afraid of questioning…

Digital is and has changed the world — however we within it need to change ourselves — we have caused so much disruption we are now disrupting our own market — and as UX professionals we are ideally placed to create our own, more ethical and impactful future..it’s really down to us..

Who really cares about a client's need?

Creating Humanising Experiences