Ethical design and accessibility

Red wooden block labeled “ethics” in the center of a Jenga game, other blocks labeled morality, relationship, behavior, choice, responsibility, trust, reliability, principle

Design is not about expressing yourself.

Design is not about following your dream.

Design is not about becoming a creative.

Design is about keeping people from doing terrible things to other people

— Mike Monteiro

Ethical design means thinking about your product in the context of its users and their environment. Designers need to learn how to think about ethical issues, and ask themselves:

  1. What are the issues facing the users I am designing for?
  2. Is there a social or environmental cost to my approach?
  3. How do I keep my product from discriminating against its users?

While we are getting better at ethical designs focusing on people from different socioeconomic backgrounds…

  • Several years ago, Facebook instituted “2G Tuesdays” to force employees to spend 20 % of their work time living with the limitations of network speed in a developing nations.
  • Value Based Insurance Design (VBID) structured health insurance programs can not only save money for people in lower socioeconomic statuses, but also improve their health incomes.

…there is almost no literature, publications or examples on including ethical design considerations facing people with disabilities.

One hand in a crowd of hands reaching for a star

Why no ethical design for PwDs?

Most organizations look at the WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines as a goal and not a floor. Viewing WCAG as an end goal results in “designing to the standards.” Like “teaching to the test”, people never look at things beyond the paperwork put in front of them that they are told they are being measured to. This approach subconsciously but clearly sends the message to people with disabilities that “ we look at you as a compliance / legal exercise, not an valuable and important minority group who should receive more consideration than the legal minimum.”

When an organization is trying only to meet legal minimums, they are clearly not addressing the three main questions of ethical design — issues, social/environmental cost, and discrimination. WCAG only addresses the third item (discrimination) and only does so in a limited way.

  • Closed captioning is required (compliant experience) but it is not required to be defaulted to on (better experience).
  • Good text spacing and contrast help people with dyslexia (compliant experience), but there is not requirement to support a dyslexia friendly font (better experience).
  • Haptics are not required to augment errors on native mobile apps
  • Motion must be limited (compliant experience), but there is no requirement to have a single place to shut off all motion permanently associated with the login profile (better experience).

Is your design providing a benefit to one group of people but at the detriment to another?

Ethical design isn’t just about measuring how you treat people with disabilities against people without disabilities, it is also about how you treat different groups of people with disabilities as opposed to other groups of people with different disabilities.

  • Does your website spend all of its budget on closed captioning, so it didn’t have any money for described audio?
  • Did your design team make a change to make the UI easier to navigate for screen reader users, but magnification users can’t access the same feature?

Those are just a couple of examples of how design can benefit one population of users with disabilities at the expense of another. It’s not enough to include people with disabilities in your design and testing team. People with disabilities doesn’t even always understand each other’s disabilities. Someone who is deaf may not understand my frustration with doors that take 25 lbs of force to open. It takes a village of people with different disabilities, both visible and invisible, participating in all phases of design, development, and UX to build a software program that works well for everyone.

Dark patterns are the quintessential definition of unethical

Dark Pattern is a term coined by Harry Brignull. His definition of “dark patterns” is:

Tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to.

An ethical design would never contain a dark pattern. If your design contains dark patterns, you really need to think twice about whether or not you are designing for the best interests of your users.

Dark patterns and Disabilities

I attended a brilliant presentation by Joe Devon ® at the 5th annual #A11yCampBay. at LinkedIn’s SF offices on March 9th. This was a one-day accessibility bootcamp started by Jennison Assuncion. Joe and Jennison also co-founded GAAD (Global Accessibility Awareness Day) which is the third Thursday in May every year. Joe’s fascinating and detailed talk was focused on the impact that dark patterns had on people with disabilities. Because people with disabilities tend to be in lower socioeconomic strata, anything that tricks them into spending money unnecessarily is by definition going to disproportionately impact people with disabilities.

As Joe went through a detailed review of each dark pattern with respect to people with disabilities, a thought popped into my mind — would adherence to WCAG 2.1 eliminate the ability to use dark patterns? Here are a few examples of where that is true:

Disguised Ads and Bait and Switch

Advertisements that are disguised as other kinds of content or navigation, in order to get you to click on them. Games are the worst when it comes to disguised ads. Watch a video and get a free life. That can be a disguised ad. Bait and Switch is when the user sets out to do one thing, but a different, undesirable thing happens instead.

Relevant WCAG Standard: Both of these dark patterns would be disallowed by the2.4.4 Link Purpose (In Context) guideline. You need to provide the users enough information to know what is going to happen when they activate a link.

Hidden Costs and Sneak into Basket

You get to the last step of the checkout process, only to discover some unexpected charges have appeared, e.g. delivery charges, tax, etc. That’s a hidden cost. “Sneak into basket” occurs when you attempt to purchase something, but somewhere in the purchasing journey the site sneaks an additional item into your basket, often through the use of an opt-out radio button or checkbox on a prior page.

Relevant WCAG Standard: 3.2.2 On Input Changing the setting of any user interface component does not automatically cause a change of context While this may seem like a stretch, commentary by W3C later in the guideline nails it “ Changes of context are appropriate only when it is clear that such a change will happen in response to the user’s action.”

Trick Questions / Confirmshaming

You respond to a question, which, when glanced upon quickly appears to ask one thing, but if read carefully, asks another thing entirely. That is a trick question. Confirmshaming is the act of guilting the user into opting into something. The option to decline is worded in such a way as to shame the user into compliance.

Relevant WCAG Standard: 3.1.5 Reading Level When text requires reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education … a version that does not require reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level, is available. Later commentary nails the reasoning behind this AAA guideline: “ Content should be written as clearly and simply as possible.”

Roach Motel

The design makes it very easy for you to get into a certain situation, but then makes it hard for you to get out of it. Relevant WCAG Standard: 2.1.2 No Keyboard Trap If keyboard focus can be moved to a component of the page using a keyboard interface, then focus can be moved away from that component using only a keyboard interface, and, if it requires more than unmodified arrow or tab keys or other standard exit methods, the user is advised of the method for moving focus away. Keyboard traps are definitely roach models. Although this doesn’t help you with the multi-step roach motel of trying to cancel a service (or unsubscribe to something) after you have signed up.


If you are not including accessibility in your designs, either explicitly or implicitly through adherence to universal/inclusive design principles, you are clearly not practicing ethical design. Intentional inaccessible design is an ableist approach which clearly provides your goods and services to able-bodied people to the detriment of people with disabilities. All three ethical design principles are violated by inaccessible design:

  • Your organization is uninterested in the issues affecting your customers who use assistive technology (Principle 1),
  • Your organization doesn’t care about the social cost of people with disabilities not being able to use your software (Principle 2).
  • Your organization is actively discriminating against people with disabilities by designing a product/service they can’t use (Principle 3).

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