Crafting Digital Delight: Navigating the Ethics in Tech from a UX Perspective

Adam Beasley
8 min readJan 20, 2024

“How will we sleep at night? Knowing that their users don’t even want this, we can’t recommend that they keep going, can we? What if this kills the relationship before it even starts?”

Ethics came into play before I started working on this account. First, some background: when I wrote this post, I was a design lead at Vervint, and had been helping a global heavy equipment manufacturer create digital experiences for almost a decade — rewarding, exciting, frustrating, grinding, stressful, and sometimes awe-inspiring.

Our engagement started with the department responsible for sales and support of the manufacturer's smaller products. They had a fantastic idea to simplify lives for landscaping professionals. We embraced human-centered design and proposed an iterative approach with a prototype to visualize the product offering. We scheduled a ride-along with some operators, observed them for a while, and walked through our prototype. Talking to that first group of operators revealed a problem: nobody wanted the product our client was proposing, they wouldn’t use it, and worse, it felt invasive to them, like “Big Brother” was looking over their shoulders.

Ugh oh! Now what?

Now the dilemma: how do you tell a multi-billion dollar manufacturer their idea wasn’t well-received? We decided honesty was crucial, even if it meant losing a valuable client. We presented our findings and recommended abandoning the idea or making a massive pivot. Surprised and disappointed, the client thanked us for our time and proceeded without us.

Nine months passed, and the project continued without us, until it didn’t. The manufacturer pulled the plug, and it was a much bigger disaster since more money and time had been poured into it. Lives were affected, careers were at risk, and vendors had to shut down. Our stakeholder returned, acknowledging that his company needed more of what we had delivered, the willingness to do what was right, even if it meant losing business.

Recalling this story at a panel on Faith in Tech: Ethics in Design recently got me thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I adapted his pyramid through a UX/CX lens and came up with this:

Sketch of pyramid with hand-written notes of 1) Do no harm, 2) Don’t be annoying, 3) Prioritize user needs, 4) Make life easier, 5) Delight

A UX Code of Ethics (adapted from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs)

  1. Do no harm or take advantage of your users
  2. Don’t annoy your users or make things harder for them
  3. Prioritize user needs over short-term profit or appeasement
  4. Make their experiences easier
  5. Delight your users

So, what does this mean?

The story about the heavy equipment manufacturer project involves number one, “Do no harm,” and number two, “Don’t annoy your users.”
The harm caused by ignoring user research caused actual job losses and company closures. End users would feel annoyed because they would feel “Big Brother” was watching over them, even if this was not the intention of the product.

I’ll lay out examples of the five hierarchies; see if you’ve experienced them.

1. Do no harm or take advantage of your users.

After Elon Musk took over Twitter, now renamed X, departments and features around fact-checking were removed or eliminated. To allow unfiltered expression under the guise of free speech, Musk opened the door to rampant misinformation.

Additionally, toy maker VTech has settled with the FTC over allegations that it violated the Children’s Privacy Law and the FTC Act. VTech’s KidConnect App allegedly gathered usage and personal information from children without providing direct notice or obtaining parental consent.

Both actions show blatant disregard for the host of users by affecting the lens through which users view their world and current events and by monetizing the behaviors and actions of children without their knowledge or parental consent. As UX experts, we cannot shy away from asking the hard questions that point out these harmful tactics before a business makes decisions like these.

2. Don’t annoy your users or make things harder for them

This is where user research can shine because annoyance is subjective. Some people want to see all the details and truly dive in before they are comfortable making a decision, while others bail on your content partway through the second paragraph. So, how do we strike that balance? User research! Journey maps, CX audits, unmoderated UI testing, and generative interviews: a myriad of tools are at our disposal to enhance confidence that we are doing the right thing. The challenge comes in a) getting business owners to fund that research and b) knowing when you’ve collected enough information to make the next right decision.

I have personal beef with any business that poses this option when I’ve spent two seconds on their website: “Sign up for news, discounts, new products, sales, etc,” or “No, I’d rather pay full price.” This is very annoying and manipulative. I acknowledge this is petty, but I don’t like being manipulated.

Another more serious example is how difficult some platforms make reporting spam, false information, bot accounts, or other issues within the platform. Meta’s Facebook and other social media platforms represent prime examples of this level of ambivalence.

My key assertion here is that talking to actual people before launching your new thing will solve scores of expensive woes. To be perfectly candid, the business will pay for it either way, so invest in ample user research rather than spend boatloads of money to support a poorly designed product or service after launch. And then, after launch, incorporate a posture of continuous improvement because new challenges will continue to pop up.

3. Prioritize user needs over short-term profit or appeasement

This is another tricky one because you must find out what your users need, and care must be given to push back against business requirements that create obstacles for your users. For instance, our heavy equipment manufacturer is taking steps to reduce the form fields in their account creation process. At one point, some of their forms had thirty-six fields to create an account. Their legal department advised them that those fields were needed to serve the eventual needs of the user. Still, there are better ways to gather that information than requiring it up front without a clear picture of what the user is getting in exchange for that process.

Apple invests massively in its R&D and UX programs so that products work well when launched. Companies operating from a people-first model may lose out on opportunities and profits in the short term, but their credibility and reputation remain intact.

People with a good experience will likely become loyal to the brand and even promote it because of their love for how they feel using the brand; it becomes part of their life. Lululemon offers a lifetime guarantee and a no-questions-asked return policy, even if clothes have been altered, because they know that those customers will keep coming back based on their experience of feeling valued by the company.

Organizations can have a long-term strategy. It may take time, but eventually, the company will win the hearts and minds of its customers if it treats them well and like humans, with compassion and respect. Also, suppose a tech company is bidding on a new technology. In that case, they must estimate properly to include the user research to do the project well and account for enough discovery time, unbiased research and user testing, and gathering enough feedback to ensure it will work for everyone, including accommodating any barriers users may encounter.

4. Make the experience and interactions with your organization easier

Have you ever used Venmo? Chances are, you’ve sent money, split a tab with friends, or given a gift through this simple money-transfer app. Venmo offers a credit card to qualified users based on their usage history; however, unlike some credit cards, they only use three form fields and a “soft” credit pull to determine if you’re preapproved. There is no lengthy process, and your credit report isn’t dinged if you're not approved. Simple and easy.

To balance ease and simplicity, you may have to consider ways that you can provide vital information that, without it, they couldn’t proceed, but then give easy, accessible ways to get more details for those who want to know all the details and compare other offers to make a decision.

Common pitfalls or challenges in making interactions easier can be resolved through A/B testing and other forms of trying various options. The key is to continue to learn about your users and adapt your product to address your findings.

5. Delight your users!

At Vervint, Delight is one of the core tenants. I’ve watched it play out countless times when a client has an expectation of what we’ll do, and we deliver above and beyond, often pushing them into new areas they hadn’t considered.

Delight comes in many forms. My co-worker, Rick, used to remind our team, “It is our job to get our stakeholders/clients promoted.” Simple, humble, but profound. We didn’t need to get the recognition, but it remains our job to help them shine with glowing and obvious success on the project, to the point where they are recognized and even promoted for their accomplishments.

A few examples of delight for me are my interactions with Apple products. Apple does a fantastic job of helping onboard new devices, enabling handoff from one device to another, and simplifying control of privacy settings. The “Tips” app is a great example of adding functionality to a product to help users have a better experience. Apple's R&D and UX departments represent a masterclass in ease of use across their product offerings. Apple also does a fantastic job of personalization and motivation; their activity notifications make me proud of my daily accomplishments!

Hand sketch of Apple Watch face with Activity rings and notification from watch, “Exercise Goal achieved. You’ve passed your exercise goal Adam! Way to seize the morning.”

Duolingo incorporates elements of surprise or joy that enhance the overall user experience: their app uses gamification, a fun progression, competition, and usage tracking to ensure success at learning a new language. I had an impressive 32-week streak before a trip to Germany in the summer of 2023!

The top of the pyramid — Delight Your Users, a hand-sketched triangle and hand-written Delight word.

Is Delight the peak of what we do? It’s something to aspire to, but if we’re talking ethics, it must go further. Many organizations use gamification, but when we add in gamification, even if delightful, are we using those methods for self-serving purposes in our digitally-saturated world, or are we rewarding behaviors that are ultimately good for our users? Tough question! Perhaps I’ll cover “Beyond Delight” in my next post on ethics in UX!

Ultimately, ethical UX design isn’t just a checklist of do’s and don’ts; it’s a commitment to building relationships, fostering trust, and leaving a positive imprint on the lives we touch. So, as we continue crafting digital experiences, let’s meet and exceed expectations, ensuring that every user interaction is functional and delightful — a testament to the ethical core of our beautiful craft.

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Adam Beasley

Husband, father, son. Michigan native, 3rd culture kid. Design Lead at Vervint by day, hobbyist mountain biker & weight lifter, cheeseburger enthusiast.