Ethics in Business and User Experience

Business professionals and user experience professionals regularly engage in discussions of ethics. In this post I will highlight a few key points to keep in mind as well as provide insights about how both parties might approach the conversation a bit differently.

Most ethical discussions arise when there is a trade-off between “making money” and “doing the right thing”, but I want to take a step back and consider how ethics and profit interact from a higher level. I use a simplified model consisting of a 2×2 matrix (see picture), with a business dimension and an ethics dimension. The best quadrant is obviously the top right, where there is a win-win solution that is ethical at the same time as the company is making money. For example, IKEA executes some business practices that are good for the environment while allowing them to save money at the same time. Flat packages mean more furniture in each shipment, resulting in fewer transports. This leads to lower fuel consumption, less emissions and ultimately lower costs.

2x2 matrix, the x-axis has unethical to the left and ethical to the right. the y-axis has making money in the top and losing money in the bottom.

Illustration of quadrants for business and ethics.

The bottom right is the charity quadrant. UX professionals usually end up in this one because they see it as their responsibility to speak up for the users and always do “the right thing”. For example, some companies go the extra mile (beyond the legal requirements) to accommodate for accessibility even if they think they will lose money doing so.

The top left quadrant (profit focus) is most often the subject of business ethics discussions. Should something unethical be done in order to make money? There are an abundance of examples to illustrate this question. The classic example is the car sales man who tries every trick in the book to get the customer’s money.

The bottom left quadrant (lose) is obviously not a place anyone wants to be, since it is both unethical and the company is losing money. No company ever intends to lose money as a result of an unethical decision, but it can happen if they misjudge their customers’ reaction. Consider a scenario when a company is outsourcing their manufacturing to a low-wage country and uses child labor to save money and boost profits (the intention is to end up in the profit focus quadrant). Later on it back fires when consumers find out about the company’s practices, leading to a boycott and resulting in a shift to the bottom left quadrant (lose).

The distinctions between each of the four quadrants are not black and white; there are also gray zones. This is because financial outcomes are always uncertain and because ethical boundaries are not always clear. Consider this list of scenarios. Which ones do you think are unethical?

  • IKEA is promoting their consideration of the environment in their business decisions as if these decisions are solely founded on environmental concerns and not on monetary gain.
  • When searching for funds at, the results page has the Fidelity funds in the top (i.e. not sorted by performance, expenses, etc.), increasing the likelihood that users will choose Fidelity funds.
  • A casino makes gamblers’ exchange money for chips so they lose the sense of “real monetary value”.
  • Some online retailers display “only X left in stock” even if they have more in stock to make it appear as though customers will miss out if they don’t purchase the item immediately.
  • Bakeries pipe air out to the street so people walking by want to come in and purchase goods.
  • Someone is offering to buy your car for fair market value, but you know it has severe defects and should be sold significantly under market value. You still sell your car for the price suggested without disclosing the issues.
  • Airline companies track visitors online and change the price depending on their search/visit behavior instead of actual supply and demand.

As you can see, ethics are not always concrete. When discussing one specific feature/action, one person can see the outcome as ethical while someone else can see it as unethical.

Answering these questions for themselves, many people take the high ground and believe they would behave ethically; unfortunately far too many have poor self-awareness. In a negotiation class in which I was a student, the teacher talked for 1 hour about ethics. Thereafter, it was time for group negotiations. Everyone had confidential information the other party did not know about. The result was astonishing. All ethical considerations had disappeared right away. Rather than disclosing information and acting according to good ethics, most students withheld information intentionally and flat out lied to get the best deal possible.

The class consisted of a mix between business and UX professionals, and there was a tendency for UX professionals to be more transparent, withholding less information and lying less often. If I generalize to the extreme, the business professionals end up in the profit focus corner of the matrix while the UX professionals end up in the charity corner. When working together, it is important to understand where the other side is coming from and that business people are often competitive in nature, causing them to prioritize winning over ethics. Try to understand what is driving the other person and that their decisions and priorities may differ from yours.

For example, I was talking to a business professional who did not think it was unethical for airline companies to set prices based on visitors’ behaviors instead of supply and demand (most visitors think ticket cost is dependent on supply and demand). He believed that this was fair since the airline charges a price (which can change) and the customer can either purchase the ticket or not. Similar to buying any product, the price can vary and in the end the customer can take it or leave it. When I talk to UX professionals, they tend to view this as unethical since there is a lack of transparency. Additionally, business professionals (project sponsors, analysts, etc.) often have a monetary incentive to do more unethical decisions. This is an unfortunate result of evaluating performance primarily on profits.

As a UX professional, It can be hard to make the business case for ethical decisions since the discussions usually surface when there is a discrepancy between profits and ethics (i.e. decisions in the profit focus quadrant and the charity quadrants; those in the lose and win-win quadrant are no-brainers). In order to make a successful business case that merges ethics and profitability, UX professionals need to demonstrate when decisions are actually in the win-win quadrant or the lose quadrant. This is no easy task, but one way is to explain how unethical behavior can have a significant cost in reputation and brand perception, especially if it goes against what the brand’s values. Similarly, unethical behaviors that make the company money in the short-term can potentially damage the brand in the long run. When talking to a business person about an idea they consider to be a charity, it is important to demonstrate when it actually is a win-win. When talking about an idea that is in the profit focus quadrant (unethical), it is important to show that it is actually is in the lose quadrant.

Some additional questions to consider when making the case for the ethical decision can be:

  • Can the charity generate more customers?
  • Can the charity build customer loyalty?

While the tendency exists for UX professionals to reason from an ethical perspective, it is important to be aware of ethics creep. (In the figure, the vertical gray zone is shifted to the left so more outcomes are viewed as win-win or charity.) Every time a person’s ethics are compromised, they rationalize their actions by becoming more flexible in their consideration of what is ethical. This is done subconsciously to protect the person’s view of themselves since most people want to identify with strong ethical standards and avoid cognitive dissonance.

As I mentioned earlier, people can have different views of what is unethical. Here are some ways for you to evaluate whether you think a decision is ethical or not.

  • Could you tell your mom, children, mentor, etc. about your decision without feeling ashamed?
  • Would you be OK if it was on the front page in the newspaper?

Another way to think about it is regarding the intent. If the intent is only to benefit the company, the action is most likely unethical. On the other hand, just because the intent is to benefit someone else, the action may still not be ethical. For example, playing classical music at the entrance of a train station resulted in a reduction in drunken teenagers spending their weekend nights there. This benefitted other travelers, but probably resulted in the teenagers went somewhere else to drink. The new place might be less safe for the teenagers as well as they may cause more problems at the new place compared to the train station. In this case, some may argue it would have been more ethical not to play the classical music.

Ethics is a fuzzy topic and people view it very differently depending on their background. When discussing a decision with ethical considerations, it is therefore important to understand the other person’s point of view while understanding that the final goal often is similar. Everyone wants to ensure that the company remains sustainable while maintaining a satisfied customer base.

Special thanks to Joshua Rosenberg for providing feedback and helping me clarify my thoughts.

© David Juhlin and, 2015

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