Ethical Vs Behavioural Design In Software Development: What Are The Dangers?

It's no secret that technology is getting smarter and smarter. And, in software development, that means that designers are capable of creating almost anything. Using the technology available to them to do it. But, there comes a point when design capabilities and ethical design starts to blur. Just because you can do something, does it necessarily mean you should? Companies are asking for more high-tech, advanced software solutions but, in order to make sure the you're still conducting ethical work, you might have to ask some tough questions. Here, we take a look at ethical and behavioural design, and unpack some of the dangers of less-than-conscious design methods...



The dangers of behavioural design in software development


What is ethical design in software development?

According to information and communications tech company, iOCO, the premise of ethical design is deliberately designing and building solutions that make lives easier. Ethical design always puts the end user's requirements, needs and interests first. Perhaps, sometimes at the expense of the hiring company's bottom line. Ethical software development is about simplifying systems and providing quick and easy interactions between the user and the technology. It focuses on making sure the communities, as well as organisations, can flourish.


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There are various ways to ensure your software development company is producing conscious, ethical products for clients. In South Africa, we have the South African Companies Act that sets out guiding principles for the sustainability of local organisations. There's also the King IV Code that details ways that companies can be run, covering things like accountability, integrity and transparency. There are also four values that can be applied to companies in technology and software development. They are...

  • Nonmaleficence – “first, do no harm”

  • Autonomy – the user has the right to refuse and/or choose their response

  • Beneficence – designers and developers should balance the interests of the user and the organisation, in the pursuit of doing or producing good

  • Transparency – informing users of the true purpose of data collection, and obtaining informed consent is part of privacy regulations instituted all around the world


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What is behavioural design in software development?

Behavioural design is about building application and software products in a way that persuades users to do a certain thing or make certain decisions. More often than not, that behaviour is geared towards increasing revenue for the organisation. Things like only providing certain options, or making one option standout more than the others in an application. In a recent article, iOCO gave the example of ATM machines having certain amounts available to withdraw, hoping to create more income for the bank. This is a software development solution that's been designed to produce a certain kind of behaviour from its user. This is what you have to look out for.



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What are the dangers?

The main danger is that this kind of technology interferes with humans' innate ability to think for ourselves, to reason, and to make our own decisions. We don't need to be doing more of what certain organisations want us to do. But, not all behavioural design is bad. It's just that is has the potential to be used in unsavoury ways. There's also the question of software being developed to collect certain data, imperceptibly skew bias and influence judgement and perception. When we start going down this road, it gets pretty scary. Privacy is still a critical right.



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Behavioural and ethical design techniques are both readily available, so it can become easy to start heading down the wrong road. But, it's always better to err on the side of caution. If, as a developer, you find yourself questioning what you're being asked to develop, always put yourself back in the user's shoes. Would you like to be given this information? Do you like the options presented? Would you want to share this personal data? In general, that's the best guiding principle to work from. If the answer requires a trade-off with the client, so be it. Your conscience will be clear.

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