Benevolent vs. Malevolent UXd
If there is a malevolent UXd or AO, the outcomes of their work will likely be unethical. For UXds that are under the direction of an AO, whether they are virtuous or not may depend on to what extent they are willingly collaborating on the design of products that knowingly cause harm or use others for personal gain. On the other hand, if a UXd is participating in a project because they have little choice in the matter, for instance, if they are compelled to work in order to be financially secure, then the case of whether they are virtuous or not becomes more complicated and it becomes more difficult to ascribe them malevolence in cases when their participation is socially bound.
Disrespecting users’ privacy, tracking users, and psychological targeting are common issues in UXD (Beake, 2014; Matz et al., 2017; Siroker & Koomen, 2013). There are fields of work where respecting a user’s privacy is common custom or even law, for example in the medical field, where breaches of privacy can lead to negative reputational and legal consequences.
However, in UXD, there have been many companies where tracking of personal data and abuse of privacy have become commonplace, usually for monetary gain of unvirtuous AO and other agents. While there can be cases where tracking users is necessary for the application to work, in those cases we would expect a virtuous person to seek permission and/or provide adequate information to the users beforehand.
Manipulative user experiences
Another way in which virtue can be subverted is through malicious user experiences, such as sneaking in extra or hidden costs, or manipulating user navigation through features such as infinite scrolling (Conti & Sobiesk, 2010; Gray et al., 2018; Noë et al., 2019). Marketing has become a regular part of our daily lives, and we have grown accustomed to digital advertisements trying to lure us into clicking. While some of us may have learned to ignore such intrusions, they still offer an example of poor user experience. Such interfaces and marketing techniques aim to get us to click, buy things and sign up for subscriptions that are difficult to cancel. Earning money may not be a vice in and of itself, but earning it through such schemes of design feels disrespectful to users. An honest salesperson would present their wares for sale in a transparent manner while the methods mentioned above feel cowardly and vulgar.
Gamification and gaming are other areas where the UXd could become exploitative towards users. Gamification elements could be items such as rewards, badges and community based scores or ranking. While gamification can be beneficial for users, there is also a strong possibility that such elements may contribute to addictive behavior (Hamari et al., 2014). These kinds of elements may be created by dishonest creators and are not in line with virtuous behavior.
Research is a necessary part of product implementation. However, it can venture outside of virtuous behaviour when the motivations for research are self-serving, such as research into how best to earn more money or take advantage of users. This would reflect greedy and unjust behaviour on the part of the designers of the research. For example, suppose an online shop is organizing user research intending to find behavior patterns that could make users buy more products so that the shop can earn more money. In that case, this does not reflect a disposition towards benevolence or honesty. Likely, they will target and exploit users’ weaknesses, like tendencies to compulsive buying or boredom, rather than their well being and then adapt the platform based on their findings. If, on the other hand, the same shop organizes user research intending to make shopping a pleasant, user-friendly experience, this would show values of virtue. and try to consider their weaknesses by helping them avoid them, rather than triggering them on purpose.
Another form of research is ‘behind-the-scenes’ research, often called A/B testing or analyzing user behavior (like analytics applications) (Matz et al., 2017; Siroker & Koomen, 2013). Similar to other user research, the essential question in terms of ethics is the motivation for the research. Research purely for monetary gain would not be in line with virtuous behaviour and neither would research for personal gain, such as researching the effectiveness of images in a political campaign. Such research may be present in elections, and instead of offering potential voters an honest and transparent manifesto, campaigners may research the effectiveness of certain imagery in campaign material. Users may not even be aware of such research or it may be noted only in small print. In these cases it can be hard to argue that such behaviour is virtuous.
An experience that offers protection bundled with annoyance seems not to be a good situation from a design perspective. It appears that all companies have to implement this experience owing to the less than virtuous behavior of some of the big ones. This calls for a different kind of resolution, one that would rather block problematic companies’ behavior and allow a comfortable user experience for others.
Relationship to other agents
User experience designers need to also consider their relationship with other members of the team, especially those responsible for implementation. Designers, if they are committed to a virtuous path, need to be mindful of the abilities of team members and not push them into workloads that are too heavy or difficult to meet within certain timeframes.