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Do You Know the Ethics Behind What You’re Designing? You Should.

January 25, 2019 by Sam Holland

As the demands on end-user well-being become increasingly stringent, it is now more important than ever for design engineers to be vigilant and consider the moral implications of their product designs.

But first, how can we best define ‘design ethics’?

One issue right off the bat is that it is not as well discussed in engineering as other user experience (UX) best practices are. UX instructor Ashley Karr, for instance, explains that “Something as fundamental to the human experience as ethics ought to be a fundamental part of human-centred design”, and laments the fact that moral decision-making at the design stage is overlooked to the point of being ill-defined.

It is vital, therefore, that a proper definition is devised. Here, design ethics is used to refer to the design engineering of a product with its end-users’ best interests, particularly their health, safety, and privacy, taken into consideration. Although privacy is, of course, a crucial aspect of the UX too, let’s consider how the ethics of design can be so important as to sometimes be a question of life or death, using medtech (namely patient alarms) as an example.

Image courtesy of Bigstock.

When Regulatory Compliance Is Not Enough

Fuelled largely by the IoT, medtech is developing fast, and with that growth comes increasingly strict codes of regulatory compliance.

One example is the IEC’s technical standardization (named 62366-1:2016), which permits manufacturers’ use of contemporary human factors engineering to “analyze, specify, develop and evaluate” the usability of medical devices.

This reflects the measures that are being taken to ensure that each medtech device is designed to protect its patients’ health and safety. But, of course, implementing such an industry best-practice reflects the importance of design ethics on paper; but in practice, the question of ethics still stands out because many end-users still fall victim to design flaws in medtech, regardless of whether the products are compliant or not.

For instance, consider a patient alarm that is fully compliant. It never breaks and always responds to its users’ needs. Yet, when it is introduced to the hospital floor, who is to say that it will always protect each and every patient’s well-being?

Accounting for human error is one of the many complications in designing ethical devices. In this example, the product has been produced with every code of practice in mind, but the issue of alarm fatigue may well lie with the hospital staff alone. That same, unfailing alarm sound could be heard so many times, that it ultimately falls upon deaf ears (known as the ‘cry wolf’ effect).

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Implementing Design Ethics

Bring in design ethics and then the prevention of ignored alarms becomes the responsibility of design engineers, not just the hospital staff. After all, up to 99% of clinical alarms may be false alarms (or otherwise insignificant), so ethical design questions are paramount here:

  • ‘Should there be a limit on how many times a clinical alarm can sound?’
  • ‘Should some alarms be louder than others, depending on the likelihood that the patient’s condition needs attention?’
  • ‘How much control should the patient have on the device?’

These are just three examples that mark some of the many concerns for end-users’ wellbeing that design ethics highlight. And particularly in this medtech example, addressing them will lead to the difference between releasing the same, simplistic alarms, and more conscientious technology that could grant better user safety, and even save lives.

This is merely one example of how more informed, compassionate approaches to design engineering will improve the UX. There are many more.

After all, while traditional industry practices (such as EMI compliance) are vital in the interests of the consumers' health and safety, if they are used on their own, concerns for end-user wellbeing becomes both mechanistic and reductionistic.

Fundamentally, knowing the moral implications of what you’re designing is the key to implementing what is otherwise that crucial missing ingredient: ethics.

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