Ethical Intelligence and Design

John Knight


This paper provides an overview of the ethical design tradition. It surveys current concerns in HCI that emphasise emotion and pleasure. Common to both the past and present is that design is a decision-making activity. This suggests a need for methods that help designers incorporate ethics into their practise. The paper concludes by suggesting that scenarios and personas may accomplish this aim.

The ethical design tradition can be traced back to the nineteenth century. During this time protagonists have highlighted the moral responsibility of designers. Furthermore, some designers including William Morris show that ethical design sells products. Ethical concerns have shifted and reflected the moral climate of society.

Patrick Jordan’s ‘Designing Pleasurable Products; an introduction to the new human factors’ (Jordan 2000) makes a case for pleasure as the ultimate quality of the user experience. Whether this reflects a hedonistic society is a moot point but Jordan links product qualities to personal needs. .He illustrates an evolution of the user experience using a model based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs beyond functionality. Bonaface (2002) develops this hierarchal model with safety and well-being, at ground level, with functionality and then usability (first and second floors), leading up to the apex of pleasure.

While synthetic experiences that seize the human intellect, emotions and senses have the potential for good they could also be harmful. Pleasure is also a troubling concept that has considered from an ethical standpoint since Epicurus. Moving from functionality to emotional needs, researchers argue that users wants and needs are becoming more sophisticated. Rather than just usability they want products and services that help them to self-actualise..

Pine and Gilmore’s ‘Experience Economy'(1999) makes a similar point. They suggest that rather than experiences consumers aspire to transformations. This new economic offering requires diagnosing aspirations, staging experiences and sustaining the change that results. Businesses ‘set the stage for helping the customer to learn to act (p 195) because ‘since Aristotle, philosophers?have acknowledged the transformational power of theatre’ (p 195). Knight (2004) critiques the hedonistic focus of the literature and links eudaimonics to design.

Others have suggested a need to investigate ethical issues in product evaluation. Liu (2003) who describes qualities of ‘psychosomatic soundness’, which refers to the degree to which a product contributes to the ‘wholesomeness’ or well-being of a person (from “harmful” to “healthful”) and the degree to which it is ethical (“bad/wrong” to “good/right”). Knight (2004) suggests an ethical framework [Figure 1] that links experience qualities to ethics.
Cairns and Thimbleby (2003) suggest that ethical rules are a poor substitute for knowledge. Such knowledge is based on sensitivity to ethical issues and intelligence in resolving them. They note that at the highest levels of ethical intelligence people commit to a unique ethical framework they have developed over time and experience. Developing ethical Intelligence requires understanding and empathy with users. User-Centred Design approach (e.g Gould and Lewis) whereby: “Designers should have direct contact with intended or actual users – via interviews, surveys, participatory design” goes someway to encourage ethical intelligence.

Other design methods aim to gain a deep understanding of and empathy for users. They include ethnographic methods such as contextual inquiry, participant-observation, where the observer participates in the activity or culture they are observing. Other methods such as participatory design advocate designing with users rather than for them (see Schuler & Namioka, 1993). Once user research has taken place the ethical consequences of a design can be simulated through scenarios and personas.

Scenarios can be used to identify requirements and to anticipate and predict use of a system before it is built. They can also be used to re-enact past events, or rare and safety critical events where direct observation is not possible. Scenarios originated in human reliability analysis in the nuclear power industry, where safety critical events could not be set up in reality. They can be used for extracting, specifying, describing and testing requirements. They can be textual descriptions, graphic stories, animations or even videos. Personas describe user characteristics in design and development. Personas help define the product by replacing the abstract, elastic user with the vibrant presence of a specific user who becomes a part of the design process.


Bonaface, L. (2002) “Linking Product Properties to Pleasure: The Sensorial Quality Assessment Method – SEQUAM.” In: Green, W. S. and Jordan, P. W. (eds) Pleasure with products: Beyond Usability. Taylor and Francis, ,187-217. ISBN 0-415-23704-1.

Cairns, P and Thimbleby, H. (2003), The Diversity and Ethics of HCI. 3-15. Available from URL: 04-01-05)

Gould, J. D. and Lewis, C. (1985) “Designing for Usability: Key Principles and What Designers Think.” In Communications of the ACM, 28 (3): 300-311

Jordan, P W. (2000) Designing Pleasurable Products. London: Taylor and Francis

Knight, J (2004) Design For Life: Ethics, Empathy And Experience. In Proceedings of Design for Life, British HCI Group Conference, Leeds, September 2004. Liu, Y. (2003) ‘The aesthetic and the ethic dimensions of human factors and design’ In Ergonomics, 2003, 46(13/14):1293 – 1305.

Pine, B.J., J.H. Gilmore, and B.J.Pine II. (1999). The Experience Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press

Schuler, D and Namioka, A (eds). Participatory Design: Principles and Practices. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993.