Importance of all agents

The ‘rightness’ of an act in UXD will be discussed from every agent’s perspective because all agents’ character traits are important, and all of them  contribute to the moral outcome of the product. 

It often happens that the client (or artifact originator, as they will be described later) has bad intentions, e.g. they want to earn more money by profiling users without their knowledge and adapt content based on their psychological profile. Even if there is a morally very good designer or copywriter involved, they will often be in a position, where they would not be able to do anything, as they have to operate strictly according to the client’s demands.  

It can also happen that a client has good intentions, and there are other agents involved that want to implement functions that are unethical or guide the client into a direction that is pointing to unethical behavior (e.g., clients could be led to believe that certain functions are useful for users when they are not).

Furthermore, it would be valuable to address not only creators’ relationships with users, but also ones they have with each other. In my experience, designers are often unreasonably undervalued when it comes to their knowledge, which stems from aesthetics being familiar to everyone; therefore, many times, other creators frame opinions around it. If a designer’s decisions and proposals are not valued as something that came out of their expertise, it is hard for a designer to keep their integrity. Also, it is often a case that a designer and developer can have trouble working together; often, a designer disregards a developer’s work and vice versa. Complaints appear that sometimes developers feel like designers are over-designing things, making their lives more complicated, and conversely, designers may feel like developers are executing their designs differently to how the designers intended. This all leads to tension during and even after the process. 

All in all, the possibility of more ethical artifacts would be higher if more agents involved had the disposition to reflect on virtues. Such a mindset would help individuals to grow but also learn from each other’s experiences. Growing towards virtue is a lifelong project that requires serious commitment, and this commitment can be helped by learning from others and from our mistakes as we proceed along a path to virtue (Woodruff, 2018)


These are the core agents that are involved in the process of UXD:
- Artifact originator or client (AO)
- User experience designer (UXd)
- User interface designer (UId)
- Developer (DV)
- Copywriter (CW)
- User of the artifact (UA)

Below are guidelines for each of the agents. They consist of the following points:
  • a definition of who each of the agents is and their responsibilities,
  • a statement that would give the specific agent guidance for the right action - this is a question an agent can ask themselves to get a perspective on how to correctly act in a certain situation, i.e., what would virtue ethics guide them to do?
  • a summary & discussion of dispositions - here we will discuss more in detail on how each of the agents would act if they were disposed to virtuous behaviour.
“Don’t be a pig”
A general rule of a thumb when thinking about how to act: “Don’t be a pig*”
People mostly develop a sense of how they are supposed to treat each other when growing up, and they usually have a general idea about what is harmful to others. Acting in an obviously immoral manner (e.g. selling private information of users to earn money) is logically wrong, and a reflection of an intrinsically bad person. “Don’t be a pig” is a shorthand way of learning not to consciously do things that hurt others for your benefit.

* A pig as an immoral person.

Artifact Originator (AO)

Who an artifact originator is,
and what their responsibilities are
An artifact originator (AO) can mean multiple things: it can be an external client, a user experience designer themselves (who sometimes might complete a whole project from idea to execution themselves), or multiple clients. Some of an AO’s main responsibilities are the creation of the project, defining the scope and overview of the project and providing feedback.
Guidance for right action
How would an AO, someone who treats others with honesty, respect, justice, and benevolence, among other virtues, act in a specific situation? How would they approach building, adapting, and updating a product?

Additionally, how would they treat their relationships with other agents involved in the process?
An example of application of guidance
Let’s say a leader of a social network is presented with a question: Is selling personal information of  users to other companies, without their consent the right thing to do?
We can clearly see that following these virtues associated with virtuous behaviour would veto any such project.
So why do many leaders in UXD continue to implement such projects?
The answer may be quite simply that they have a disposition towards malevolent behaviour. It’s probably a good idea to steer clear of such people, at least until they take steps to improve their attitude.
Possible Dispositions & Discussion
A virtuous AO would be inclined to:

Discussion of dispositions

Adapting the artifact
Some products have been shown to cause harmful behavior in their users, such as causing addictive behavior, low attention spans, being used to spread false information or even causing accidents (Coyne et al., 2019; David et al., 2015; Ishida & Matsuura, 2001; Nasar & Troyer, 2013; Primack & Escobar-Viera, 2017; Shuib et al., 2015b; Strayer & Johnston, 2001; Trowbridge et al., 2018; Vos et al., 2019; Wu & McCormick, 2018). An AO who has a virtuous disposition would aim not to let their products lead to such outcomes and if they did, they would try to remedy the situation through making needed alterations. If this was not immediately possible, they may even take the route of being open and honest with their users about the potential for negative side effects. In this way we might envision that UXD design, for virtuous designers and AOs should be thought of in the same way that pharmaceutical companies produce medicine. After all, a pharmaceutical company wouldn’t knowingly let a medicine that could cause serious side effects onto the market without an effort to warn and mitigate consumers.

Malevolent tendencies
AOs may often start production from assessing the benefits that will accrue to them and not taking into account the consequences for users. Examples of this are intentionally creating games knowing they have addictive components, creating applications to gather user’s data and selling it to other companies, and creating social media applications based on the knowledge that they could be potentially addictive and thus bring more income to the AO. In these cases we could say there is a high chance that the product is unethical and the behavior of the AO is exploitative.

Fair pricing
Pricing is a key component of virtue when it comes to designing and marketing products. Unfair pricing is not only about the cost, but about the way that prices can exclude certain demographics. For example, industry-standard software with a premium price tag may be unfair to students who need it for their work, but lack the financial means to afford it. A benevolent AO may look towards solutions that involve both a fair price for all but also perhaps strategies that acknowledge differing social position.

AO's responsibilities
AOs are responsible not only for their own behaviour but also for colleagues across the production process in a way that is beneficial for everyone, including the end user.

Relationship to other agents
AOs are not just concerned about the ethical outcomes for users of the product, but also the other agents involved in the production.Workers can often feel undervalued in terms of their creativity, experience and knowledge and may be treated as mere ‘tools’ by other agents. This can lead to feelings of frustration. However, AOs with a disposition to virtuous behaviour such as  benevolence, kindness and respect would be more likely to trust the designers or other workers/agents. Even in cases where trust breaks down, they would approach the situation with honesty as they try to find a solution or even hire another designer.

Furthermore, there may be cases where AOs do not give their agents adequate time to execute given tasks. Therefore, a virtuous consideration would take into account the agents’ timeframe and needs during work and refrain from repeatedly pressuring them, especially if they are not appropriately rewarded. In summary, interfering or belittling any agent’s knowledge is not in line with any virtue.  

User experience designer (UXd)

Who is a user experience designer and what their responsibilities are?
A user experience designer (UXd) designs the user experience of the product. UXds can also be the AO if they are creating the product. A UXd tackles questions such as who will use the artifact? What does the AO want to achieve? What technology will be used? The UXd may also conduct user interviews, create prototypes for testing and further development and curate the user experience. Once an artifact is on the market, the UXd may also have a responsibility for adapting and updating it.
Guidance for right action
How would a UXd, someone who treats others with honesty, respect, justice, and benevolence, among other virtues, act in a specific situation? How would they approach designing the user experience, and the subsequent need to adapt and update it?

Additionally, how would they treat their relationship with other agents involved in the process?
An example of application of guidance
Let’s say that a UX Designer realises that infinite scrolling leads to addiction patterns in many users which itself can lead to mental health implications. What should they do?
If they choose to follow the  virtue of benevolence, then they would not implement the feature as it is harmful.

Similarly if they believed in justice, they should also refrain from using the feature, as use of the feature would bring them or their business an advantage at the expense of the health of the users.

We might also apply these conclusions to other UXD features such as the ‘like’ function that many social media apps have, if it can be shown that such a feature is harmful.
Just because many features of the modern internet may lead to harmful behaviour, it doesn’t mean that the people who designed these features had bad intentions in mind. Most features are designed to improve user experience. Nevertheless, we must be critical when it comes to feature design and probe the motivations for new designs to assess whether they are well-intentioned or knowingly implementing harmful features for private gain.
Possible Dispositions & Discussion
UXd would be inclined to:

Discussion of dispositions

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.

Usability research
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.

A/B testing
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.

Further, having a  Terms and Conditions or Privacy Policy page on every website and product does not benefit anyone and does not allow for a good user experience. While such pages may protect AOs and other agents from legal repercussions, we might ask whether such things would even be necessary if the agents had originally approached the product with ethics of virtue and with an intention to create positive relationships with users. If users could rely on and trust the artifact and the agents involved then there might not be a need for overly complicated procedures of consent that most users are unlikely to read and perceive as an annoyance.

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.

User interface designer (UId)

Who a user interface designer is, and what their responsibilities are
A user interface designer (UId) designs the product’s interface (the visual part) and adapts it after it has been released to the public. UId can be a separate person or the AO or UXd themselves. As with previous agents, the same virtues apply to any agent that is involved in this step.
Guidance for right action
How would a UId who treats others with honesty, respect, justice, and benevolence, among other virtues, act in a specific situation? How would they embody these virtues in their approach to designing the interface, adapting it, and updating it?

Additionally, how would they treat their relationship with other agents involved in the process?
An example of application of guidance
If a UId realises they are being directed by their colleague to design an interface in a way that would be manipulative, for example making the subscribe button large and the cancel button barely visible, they might be forced to make an ethical decision. Those who wanted to act with virtue, honesty or justice might refuse to implement the feature as it would present users with an unbalanced and forceful ‘choice’. However, the ethical dilemma becomes more difficult when an UId is in a subordinate position to the AO or UXd and is forced to carry out their commands in the workplace. In such a case, it is difficult to say the UId is not virtuous, as they are the victim of more systemic circumstances.
Possible Dispositions & Discussion
A UId who is aiming to be ethical would be inclined to:

Discussion of dispositions

Benevolent vs. malevolent UId
An ill-intended UId can design interfaces that guide users into clicking certain buttons or elements in the interest of UId (or AO or UXd) and not in the user’s interest. For example, users can be manipulated by buttons that are highly saturated, bigger or greyed-out as well as certain imagery (Conti & Sobiesk, 2010; Gray et al., 2018). A benevolent, honest UId would focus on the user and try to make the interface pleasant for them and not use the interface as a tool for manipulation.

Design as a tool for manipulation
Manipulative user interfaces change the role of design from complementing a good function to masking a bad function. When a design is used as a tool for manipulation, it is not a design centered towards users or their experience, but towards the creators. Users will inevitably, in my experience, feel this difference.

Developer (DV)

Who a developer is, and what their responsibilities are
A developer is a person that has the role of programming the product. In some cases, UXds or AOs may also take the role of developer too.
Guidance for right action
How would a developer, someone who treats others with honesty, respect, justice, and benevolence, among other virtues, act in a specific situation? How would they approach developing, adapting, and updating a product?

Additionally, how would they treat their relationship with other agents involved in the process?
An example of application of guidance
Suppose that a developer has a task (e.g., given from AO) to develop an algorithm that would keep users more engaged on an online shopping platform. If a developer would ask themselves what would be in line with virtue and best to do for users, they would, assumably, quickly conclude that ‘keeping users more engaged’ is not the right intention to begin with. Users would probably appreciate it more if they were able  to quickly find what they are searching for, rather than being  ‘seduced’ to buy things they were not expecting to. Keeping users more engaged is an intention that would benefit creators at the expense of users, which is not something that a just developer would do.
Possible Dispositions & Discussion
Developer would be inclined to:

Discussion of dispositions

A benevolent developer
In my experience, developers check the artifact prototypes to see how complicated it is to execute functions and provide suggestions for improvements (e.g., suggest functions that would make the artifact less complicated, user-friendly or faster to load). A benevolent developer would be oriented towards suggesting improvements that would benefit users (e.g., optimizing the website to be faster to load and more efficient to use).

A benevolent developer would be orientated towards the user in both design and post-production. Similarly to other agents, our assessment of the developer’s ethics relates to their place within the process and their relationships to others and whether they are intentionally contributing to malevolent design or being directed to with little choice in the matter owing to personal circumstances.

Malicious code
Malicious code (hacking, hidden tracking, privacy abuse, infecting computers, among others) harms users for the benefit of agents involved (e.g., monetary benefits) in the process and is thus not virtuous behaviour.

Copywriter (CW)

Who copywriter is, and what their responsibilities are
A copywriter is a person that writes the textual content for the product and its marketing, and in some cases may be the AO or UXd as well.
Guidance for right action
How would a copywriter, someone who treats others with honesty, respect, justice, and benevolence, among other virtues, act in a specific situation? How would they approach writing, adapting, and updating a text for a product?

Additionally, how would they treat their relationship with other agents involved in the process?
An example of application of guidance
Let’s assume that a copywriter has a task to present a new product, and an AO asks them to test with users to which wording they respond better, i.e. which wording would attract more users. If a CW would follow the above mentioned guidance, they would, most likely, quickly realise that this task is not in line with virtue. Using words that are the most attractive to users e.g., using words like best, the best, magical experiences, great, super, etc., instead of using words that accurately describe the product may be dishonest.  When presenting a product, a CW’s objective should be to present it honestly, giving users an option to create their own opinions, before they are created for them. Adapting text for the sake of retention is therefore not in line with virtue.
Possible Dispositions & Discussion
An ethical CW would be inclined to:

Discussion of dispositions

Similar to visual language, it is suggested that marketing can have a manipulative role; in UXD, this can happen through copywriting. Manipulative marketing is not truthful about presenting the product (Sher, 2011), but rather uses techniques to make users believe the product is better than others, without sufficient evidence. Copywriters may exaggerate the quality of the product and use false arguments or appeal to users’ emotions, such as their hopes and fears. By using words such as better or best (e.g., our product is named the best in the market, our product is better than), up to (‘save up to 30%’ is not the same as ‘save 30%’), acts, and helps (our product ‘could help’, rather than our product ‘does’) copywriters present false or deceiving facts about their product (Schrank, 1996). An act of deception or being untruthful is not in line with any of the virtues (especially honesty). Therefore, a benevolent copywriter would be honest in their presentation of a product in the content and marketing.

If a copywriter found out that their text is harmful to users in any way, a benevolent copywriter would take action to adapt it accordingly.

User (UA)

Who the user is, and what their responsibilities are
Users are those who use the final artifact. Besides using the artifact, some users participate in user research and prototype testing.
Guidance for right action
How would a user, someone who treats others with honesty, respect, justice, and benevolence, among other virtues, act in a specific situation? How would they approach using the product and collaborating on its improvement?
An example of application of guidance
Suppose that the user is a model influencer who is regularly posting videos and pictures of themselves on a social media application. If they are asking themselves if it would be right to post a video of themselves for the sake of getting attention (likes and followers) from other people, they would, hopefully, following the above guidance, come to conclusion that following the virtue of honesty this would not be the right act, as they would cover up their real intention.
Possible Dispositions & Discussion
User would be inclined to:

Discussion of dispositions

Users who use the artifact also have a responsibility to act not to hurt other people, such as the people they interact with inside the artifact, creators, and themselves.

UXD and addiction
It has been shown that artifacts are built in a way that could potentially cause addictive behavior (Coyne et al., 2019; Noë et al., 2019; Shuib et al., 2015). To make an analogy to cigarette addiction, this is caused in the first place by the simple fact that cigarettes exist and thus this part of the responsibility is on the creator’s side. However, once a user lights a cigarette, they also take some partial responsibility for their action too. Addiction, then, is a product of both the producer and the user. In UXD, the same holds true when it comes to products that encourage or don’t mitigate against addictive behaviour. The virtue of temperance, which refers to the ability to have self-control over bodily and life pleasures, is relevant here for user responsibility. Nevertheless, it is not my intention to be ignorant towards the fact that addictions could be hard to overcome, or even to become aware of them, but to state that there is partially a responsibility for users.

Learning more about the harmful parts of UXD
Creators like to tailor their products based on the information they know about a user. Therefore it is suggested that users educate themselves on the strategies of creators that may be used to exploit them and be aware of more benevolent substitutes.

Social media and other UXD products provide platforms where users can ‘exercise’ their freedom of speech. This often leads to online bullying and disrespecting other users (Craig et al., 2020; Kowalski et al., 2014; Nixon, 2014). There is no need to say that acts like this are not in line with virtue, and users that have a disposition to virtuous behavior would not act in this way and probably try to help people affected if possible. Also, there is a responsibility on the AO and UXd to act if their products are used for cyberbullying.

Stealing artifacts
Stealing artifacts like computer software or applications or abusing platforms for sharing stolen artifacts is an issue that is already addressed by governments or companies with the consequences of punishment (either by money or by the prison). Stealing is surely not a virtue, but, in my view, it would be more beneficial to seek ways to limit the behaviour not  by punishing people or sending them to prison, but rather by finding ways to make applications more accessible and affordable for users and educating people on the consequences of stealing.