Building ethical digital products — a practical guide

Engaging with digital services is to some degree a Faustian bargain. The person using the service has to give up some privacy and data in exchange for access to communication, shopping, or information. And as the data sets grow, we as a society trade accountability, transparency and control for the speed and reach of AI-powered decisions.

As the technology evolves faster than regulation, what can we do to make sure we avoid dystopian scenarios? It is clear that the system lends itself to biases, dark patterns, obscure data practices, encouragement of addictions, intrusive tracking & profiling and in some cases criminal activity.

“Tech as of yet is an unregulated industry,” says Raina Kumra.”Because of this, self-regulation takes on a greater role.”

Of course, independent agencies, community-led pressure groups and governmental regulators should and will continue to monitor and legislate tech usage. Likewise, individual users can tool up in the ‘arms race’ against intrusive or destructive tech practices. But here I would like to share a guide for anyone involved in creating or maintaining digital products. This is a practical guide designed for myself, to make sure I actively follow an ethical and humane design process. It is based on reflection and research. I aim to review it periodically.


As a designer/developer, it’s important that you build a solid ethical framework for yourself and your team, and take the lead in advocating/ensuring that the products follow an ethical process both before and after launch.

Key tips:

1) Start building a toolkit

2) Use checklists

3) Follow holistic/ethical design principles

4) Keep informed

5) Review/maintain your toolkit

6) Be prepared to advocate

More info:

Build your own collection of articles, guides and tools that you can refer to during the process. Here are some of mine:

When tasks are sophisticated and complicated, experts need checklists to help avoid otherwise inevitable mistakes. Following on from Atul Gawande’s Surgical Safety Checklist, build ethical checklist use into your tech development process.

1) Create your own checklist with questions relevant to the tech, product, feature you are working on. Use a template and add questions as relevant.

2) Decide how the checklist will be incorporated into the product design requirements or at what stage it applies.

3) Decide who will hold the team accountable and how the checklist will be reviewed.

Inspiration: the 5 Cs; ethical risk mitigation checklist; privacy by design;

· Make sure your decisions are user-centered.

· Bring in user perspectives early on.

· Identify the problem correctly, so that the objectives are clear.

· Challenge the KPIs. “Until we learn to measure what we value, we will overvalue what we measure.” Kim Goodwin.

· Question everything.

Read up on key trends and developments. Keep up to date with legal or industry standards.

GDPR is a Data Protection Regulation that affects how personal data for individuals in the EU can be collected and processed.

The Digital Services Act is a proposal for a new set of rules to create a safer and more open digital space across the EU.

Be prepared to defend your ethical process across the organization and argue for why it matters. Use facts, research and experience to back up your values.

Do you agree? Disagree? If you have tips of your own, or experiences to share, please comment or reach out to me on Linkedin.

Digital designer, artist, educator, UX student, protean human.