3/15/2019 - #culture-web #ecommerce
by: Clément Pailler

In the context of the ambitious objectives of digital transformation, we are witnessing the emergence of design practices that raise the question of the developer's responsibility. Where do these practices come from? Are they implemented unintentionally? Can they be avoided?

These design choices, grouped together for some years now behind the term "dark pattern”, aim to trap the user by playing on his expectations and habits. Whether legal or not, these practices always have a negative impact on users, by collecting and sharing private data, or by forcing unwanted sales. Alongside these "evil" designs are also unfortunate design choices that are diverted and used outside their original context. Developers and designers are, however, human beings like any other and do not systematically and voluntarily seek to harm the users of their applications. Unfortunately, sometimes the answers they provide to the problems they are asked to solve, can be misused.

Luckily, there are strategies to avoid these overflows as much as possible. These strategies are already found in other trades, such as medicine, where it would be easy to benefit from patient confidence. This is obviously a question of professional ethics.

Ethics? Ticks or Tricks?

It is not the purpose here to present ethics in all its aspects, but a small definition is needed.

Ethics is a discipline that aims to establish rational methods for making decisions in accordance with moral principles and values. In this way, it is rather obscure and it is quite normal because it is a very wide philosophical discipline that has occupied thinkers for several thousand of years and across all continents. More concretely, the framework provided by ethics - in terms of web design - is to make the right design choices and quickly identify the wrong choices to correct them. In the development of a project, one can be tempted to reproduce a mechanics and ergonomics, encountered on other projects, which seem to be proving their worth. In doing so, there is a great risk that certain practices will not be called into question.

The objectives of an e-merchant are clear: to sell as many products as possible to the largest possible population. If a “trick” or an “error” makes it possible to better achieve this objective, it is easy to consider it and wish to implement it. Except that this is the Internet, where the potential buyer is still only a few clicks away from a review of the seller or another store where to make a purchase, information flows extremely quickly. A dissatisfied customer will not just inform his family and friends, he will share it on social networks with link and image to support his point. Moreover, since the emergence of the term “dark pattern”, it has become easier to talk about it or understand it in order to better identify the sites that use it, as is regularly the case for some airlines companies. The risk is therefore high for an e-merchant who wishes to set up over time. Following an ethical line is safer for anyone who does not want to spend part of his budget on improving his image.

The question of liability

At first sight, responsibility for ethical issues lies in the hands of e-merchants, since the people to whom they entrust the task of implementing their project are generally not decision-makers. This means forgetting that a service provider also has an advisory role and that often dubious design choices are not made voluntarily or by analysing the possibilities of misuse. All those involved in the development of a project have an ethical responsibility as a designer, from the client to the developer who implements the functionalities. These same people have an ethical responsibility as human beings regarding their impact on the world, and in the context of an e-commerce project this quickly represents thousands or even millions of people.

Monitoring these issues is not an easy task, how can we know if the proposed solution to a problem is ethically acceptable? What are the criteria for judging it?

The 4 Musketeers of Ethics

In the context of web creation activities, it is generally appropriate to confront problems and solutions with the four main ethical currents: deontology (ethic), consequentialism, the ethics of virtue and the approach to capabilities.

Ethics or Deontology allows us to judge our choices in terms of moral duties, the objective being to make the choice that everyone should make in terms of established rules. This first approach makes it possible to deal with current or already encountered problems but is difficult to apply in the face of novelty.
Consequentialism aims to establish the validity of a choice on the basis of its consequences by aiming to maximize positive consequences and/or reduce negative consequences. Such a way of dealing with a problem can lead to ignoring the needs of some users. The ethics of virtue is based on the intentions of those who make the choice to judge its validity. Unfortunately, although it is generally necessary to be willing to do the right thing, it is very rarely enough..
Finally, the Capability approach is concerned with validating choices with regard to the freedoms they offer to all users without distinction. The concern here is to define the freedoms to be offered and those not to be suppressed.

Although not exhaustive, these different approaches are quite complementary. Thus, when faced with a solution that he is asked to implement, a developer will be able to quickly go through the following questions:


  • Is there an ethical rule regarding this situation? if so, what does it say?


  • Who benefits from this solution and why?
  • Who is disadvantaged by this solution and why?
  • How are the disadvantages caused by this solution reduced/compensated?

Ethics of virtue

  • What are the virtues applicable to the situation?
  • Does the solution brought to you bring you closer to these virtues?

Capability Approach

  • What capabilities does the decision offer to the end users?
  • Do these capabilities increase the operating freedom of end users?
  • Is it a solution that is part of a continuous improvement in the quality of life of the end user?

Asking these kinds of questions allows the developer to quickly identify ethically flawed decisions, but some of these decisions will fall through the cracks. It is not inevitable, there is always place for improvement as long as errors are analyzed and understood.

In a world where everything is changing, it is necessary to remember that the objective is the increasing improvement of the quality of digital goods and services and the quality of the user experience, it is they who make and defeat the giants of this world.

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