Thinking about business ethics

What does it mean to be an ethical designer?

Uber’s meteoric rise in both customer popularity and localised hatred has been hard to ignore, especially the violence in South America and France. Yet I still use the service. It is (or was) cheap, easy and felt like it was at the forefront of technology, pushing forward innovation of a tired old industry.

Until only recently while investigating Uber’s worker’s rights issues for a social justice discussion with ThoughtWorks I began to question; is this company ethical? Is my use of their service causing others to suffer? Could I work for this company in the future knowing what I know now?

It’s fair to say that everyone will have a different understanding of what they deem ethical or unethical. There are varying degrees of ethics within business that could be a determining factor when deciding which companies are desirable to join in the future and the roles within them. For example maybe casino style gambling sites might be a cause of concern, however standard sports focused betting companies might be more acceptable.

Equally, think about companies that on the face of it are innovative and might be interesting to work for. Yet, with some further digging, like I have with Uber, the realisation is that their business practices are having a negative impact on users, the environment or maybe even their employees.

Tom Lloyd at WhatUsersDo made a valid comment:

“I suppose it depends where you draw the line on what you consider ethical… insurance? retail? [What if you] trace things far back enough and you get into the ethics of globalisation/capitalism at the root of many sectors[?]”

It’s an interesting point, where should the line be drawn?

Back to the example above; I turned down an opportunity to work for a casino gambling website who’s target audience was Scandinavian women in their early 20s. That just felt so wrong to me, as Experience Designers we create products that delight and entice our customers to engage and want to return. Through my work would I be ensuring young women became gambling addicts?

As a contrast I wouldn’t have too much of a problem working for a focused sports betting company. That may be because it’s a more traditional business, something that can easily be found on the high street. It’s also a more established industry and potentially more innovative and interesting to me personally. How we decide what the balance is will mostly come down to personal opinion.

Would I work for Uber, even though I know about some of their issues? Yes I would — what a hypocrite! However, the company is at the fore front of business and technology innovation, something many people in this industry crave.

My view on this will most likely change over time. For example in light of the political situation in the US it seems that Uber were trying to benefit from and maybe even disgrace traditional taxi drivers who stood up to Trump’s immigration policies. They have since apologised but clearly the thought was not there to begin with.

Disagreeing with the way they do business is one thing, but it is easy to stand on the outside and criticise, when instead we could try to change the business from the inside.

As Experience Designers we do have that opportunity, not quite to the same extent as Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick, however we can suggest improvements to the experience of their products that could lead to better relationships with their drivers and help to improve their worker’s rights situation.

Ultimately it comes down to personal preference and opinion, at a minimum we should be investigating the business we are interested in and understand where their principles lie. It shouldn’t just come down to a decision about salary. Some unethical companies do pay very well, surprise surprise, because they struggle to attract talent.

If you’re looking for more about Agile, Lean, design and culture you can follow me on Twitter @ndxcc or read more on Northern Dynamics

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