Putting people before numbers and creating a positive impact through design

Illustration: Sam Whitney / Getty Images
Illustration: Sam Whitney / Getty Images

Design decisions are being executed at a historically unprecedented pace and scale. And most of them are not for the sake of people but care more about business goals, numbers and making a profit.

If you are not familiar with the term, Dark Patterns are the use of cheap user interface tricks and psychological manipulation to get users to act against their own best interests. User Experience consultant Chris Nodder wrote Evil By Design, a fantastic book that unpacks how to detect and think about them if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

The term “dark patterns” was first coined by UX specialist Harry Brignull to describe the ways in which software can subtly trick users into doing things they didn’t mean to do or discourage behaviour that’s bad for the company.

Not all dark patterns are designed maliciously though, and some fellow UX designers might not even be aware that they’ve built a system that’s tricking users. In many cases, designers might just be doing what works. But being cognizant of how app design plays on human biases is key to avoiding falling victim to dark patterns. As designers, we need to learn more about how to make better design decisions.

Because right now there are glaring gaps in our methods, our experience, and our team dynamics that are leading to unethical products.

Dan Brown writes in “UX in the Age of Abusability”:

With every one step taken to improve the design of products, the expectations of users and stakeholders take three.

Where do products and processes go wrong? Who is responsible? Joel Califa explains in his article “Subverted Design” how designers are part of this problem:

As a Designer becomes more Senior, they also become more realistic and business-minded, or so the idea goes. These “Senior Designers” understand that a company is a company, and that the money paying your salary has to come from somewhere. Their thinking alignes more closely with PMs and leaders, and that garnered respect. Respect feels good and is generally an indicator that they are on the right track.
Project goals became increasingly centered around company needs rather than user needs. Their language changed to better communicate with stakeholders. Words like “polish” and “value” gave way to “adoption” or “engagement” or “platform cohesion.” It’s laughably easy to rationalize that these things are good for users too.

Don Norman says the way we design today is wrong!

☠️ Here’s some food for thought for your day: what if the very way in which we design is bad for the world?

😱 Don Norman says that the way we design today is wrong — a sentiment also voiced by designer Victor Papanek in 1971. So, what are we doing wrong as designers and — more importantly — why are we doing it wrong?

💥 In this video, Don shares his perspective on why designers (often unwittingly) contribute to the problems they could instead fix.


Imagine a future where technology is built on our values, not our screen time.

In the Attention Economy, technology and media are designed to maximize our screen time. But what if they were designed to help us live by our values? What if news & media companies were creating content that enriched our lives, vs. catering to our most base instincts for clicks?

What if social platforms were designed to help us create our ideal social lives, instead of maximizing the time-on site and “likes”? What if dating apps measured their success in how well they helped us find what we’re looking for instead of in # of swipes?

Products shouldn’t be harmful, by intent or by accident. We must develop capabilities within design that prevent harmful products. What the persona debate tells us is that design is churning on the same old issues.

What we need is the field of design to advance, to mature, such that it can adequately address its increasingly serious shortcomings.What can we do to mature the practice of design?

UX in the Age of Abusability, Dan Brown

As technology gets more and more engaging, and as AI and VR become more and more prevalent in our day-to-day lives we need to take a look at how we’re structuring our future.

We need to recalibrate our ethical boundaries and leverage our new positions and skills. The new skills are our ability to understand data and articulate decisions within the context of the business. These are extremely useful skills. We need to use them now, and make a business case for putting people before numbers.We need to ask ourselves some important questions.
Are we using these new tools that we’ve been given — this new clout — to create a positive impact? Or, now that we’re enjoying the accolades and wealth, have we become complicit with a system that cares more about money than it does human beings?
Subverted Design, Joel Califa

If you’re currently at a company whose values do not align with your own, and you haven’t been able to effect meaningful change, know that you don’t have to stay there. You can find somewhere better. A better company in which business needs and people’s needs aren’t in opposition, a company where these needs align.


More resources for further exploration of digital ethics and sustainability, and how to apply them to your designs:



  • Ethical tools for designersThese tools will help you uncover, explore and discuss the ethical aspects of your designs. The tools are grouped based on the skill they help you develop and can be used in different phases of the design process. If you click on a tool you’ll find the materials and instructions you need to get started right away.
  • Humane by DesignA resource that provides guidance for designing ethically humane digital products through patterns focused on user well-being.
  • Cards for HumanityA practical tool for inclusive design.
  • Inclusive Design PrinciplesThese Inclusive Design Principles are about putting people first. It’s about designing for the needs of people with permanent, temporary, situational, or changing disabilities — all of us really. They are intended to give anyone involved in designing and developing websites and applications — designers, user experience professionals, developers, product owners, idea makers, innovators, artists and thinkers — a broad approach to inclusive design.
  • The Tarot Cards of TechFrom feeds full of fake news to smartphone addiction, we are all waking up to the unintended consequences of technology. We think it is time to ditch the Silicon Valley mantra “Move fast and break things” for a new approach: Slow down and ask the right questions. The Tarot Cards of Tech are a set of provocations designed to help creators more fully consider the impact of technology. They will not only help you foresee unintended consequences, they can only reveal opportunities for creating positive change. To begin, simply click and see how to cards fall for you.
  • Toolkit: The Digital Ethics CompassA tool to help companies make the right decisions from a design ethical standpoint.
  • Ethical Design GuideTech is always political. The way data is collected and handled is often biased, and many products are neither accessible nor inclusive. Ethical Design Guide is made to share resources on how to create ethical products that don’t cause harm.

— That’s it for this edition. You can find this article on Medium →