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Updated Feb 21, 2023

How to Provide an Honest and Ethical User Experience

Giving users an unethical experience can do long-term harm to your business.

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Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
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Table of Contents

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These days, people spend nearly as much time online as they do offline. With this constant interconnectivity, people are confronted with various online user experiences depending on where they shop and browse. 

As a business owner, ask yourself how your company can balance good product design with ethics. The design teams of businesses of all sizes always must hold themselves accountable. Here are some strategies for how to do that.

How to provide an ethical user experience

1. Don’t exploit your users’ fear of missing out.

User experience design can be manipulative as long as it truly benefits the user. A gamified weight loss app, for instance, could encourage users to live a healthier lifestyle. That’s a good form of manipulation.

On the other hand, many apps aim to exploit users’ fear of missing out. This is a tried-and-true marketing tactic, but it’s not necessarily ethical when you’re in a user’s pocket and able to leverage friends and family as collateral. The design choices made at these companies contribute to the isolation users feel on certain social platforms.

Instead of using negative consequences to motivate users, such as making them feel bad when they don’t perform a task or join a group, design teams should focus on positive reinforcement. This can be done with simple messaging or small animations and celebrations that encourage users to complete desired behaviors. Fear is a powerful motivator, but using it as a design tool makes you more of a dictator than a benevolent leader. You will build a stronger, more ethical company if you focus on empowerment instead.

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Although using a customer's fear of missing out is a tried-and-true marketing method, it is considered unethical. Instead, focus on empowerment when you're devising your marketing strategies.

2. Keep your prices transparent.

Customers may find it disheartening and downright annoying when they purchase something online and suddenly face extra charges for things such as taxes or shipping. An ethical strategy to apply to your website’s user interface is to ensure that the price customers see is what they pay.

When you’re pricing items on your website, be sure to include taxes and fees in the listed price, as opposed to having them appear as the customer is checking out. Many companies list and advertise one price for a product, but when customers go to check out, it’s much more expensive after the addition of taxes, fees and shipping.

3. Don’t design products that are harmful to users’ health.

Apps and sites, especially social ones, often exploit people’s inherent desire to belong and guilt them into posting. Businesses that deploy apps shouldn’t just track success metrics that show how much engagement they are getting. Looking at only these numbers encourages you to design products that can lead to addictive and harmful user behavior.

Don’t forget the qualitative data as well. Find out how you are bringing joy and value to people’s lives and making them feel better about themselves. Too much focus on the quantitative instead of the qualitative leads to exploitative behavior. Talking to your users is an incredibly important part of the early stages of product design because it allows you to build empathy. [Learn how to build a strong brand community.]

4. Make subscriptions easy to cancel.

In many companies’ user interfaces, customers may find it easier to get into a subscription or an order than to get out of it. By making the cancellation process difficult, consumers are unlikely to take the necessary steps to cancel, which could make them unhappy over the long run and may prevent future referrals. Just because one product doesn’t work for someone doesn’t mean it won’t work for their friend or family member. 

Make it easy for customers to cancel an order or subscription. As a result, your customers will feel heard and confident that your company isn’t trying to trick them into buying something they don’t need. [Learn how to utilize customer service as a marketing strategy.]

5. Don’t allow your biases to affect your designs.

Designers are trained to build things that make people feel comfortable, but the best designers know when ethics demand a closer look.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why most of our voice assistants appear to be female, for instance, and speak in a flirtatious manner? According to a UNESCO report, part of the problem is that the industry’s lack of diversity can result in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, like women being seen as compliant assistants instead of in a variety of roles.

When software takes on a human representation (such as Siri, whose very name means “beautiful woman who leads you to victory”), think about whether the design is reinforcing such biases or fighting against them. By educating yourself about common biases, you might uncover some stereotypes you have been perpetuating unknowingly. This small bit of education will allow your team members to evaluate the design choices they are making.

That doesn’t mean you have to change every instance of human representation to a gender-neutral robot. Rather, by informing yourself – and, by extension, your design – you can elevate the ethics of the product you are building. Encourage your team, no matter how small, to take time to understand the biases they might carry.

Bottom line: When you’re designing software with a human representation, educate yourself about common biases and avoid perpetuating stereotypes. 

6. Make your privacy policy transparent.

Privacy policies are often difficult to understand and filled with legal jargon that the average consumer may not understand at a glance. Often, customers don’t even read it, even though it contains pertinent information about the use of their private data.

Therefore, it is best not to hide behind privacy policies when you’re obtaining information from your customers, who would prefer you ask for minimal personal data. Provide them with simple statements about the information you’ll be collecting, and ask for their consent. You can elaborate on the details in a privacy policy, but make sure the customer will be able to understand the gist of any personal data you’ll be collecting before they sign over their information. 

7. Don’t trick people to increase profits.

In design, pop-ups asking for consent or an agreement of some kind almost universally use dark patterns that are contrasted with brightly colored “agree and continue” buttons. When faced with reading the fine print, humans naturally look for the quickest way out. Designers make it easy for them to agree without reading by illuminating the button they want users to click. We’ve all fallen for this tactic at some point.

In an analysis of retail brands, user experience (UX) service Sigma Software found that companies employ several shady methods to increase revenue, such as using bright colors on the answers the seller wants you to click but leaving the “no thanks” buttons unshaded.

Plus, companies simply have an incentive to keep users glued to their screens. Endlessly scrolling feeds show more ads to users, which means companies earn more while leeching users’ time.

Trickery and deceit have become common in UX design. In his book “Evil by Design” (Wiley, 2013), Chris Nodder organizes design examples that exploit each of the seven deadly sins. While sketching out workflows and creating interfaces, designers need to be honest with consumers by not intentionally confusing them and instead using their design training to make the appropriate choices clear.

Businesses’ design teams need to stop focusing solely on profit and engagement metrics, as it could require crossing ethical lines that could harm your users and your business’s long-term reputation. Not only could it result in bad publicity, but it’s also unethical. There are many other ways to build loyal customers. Designs should enrich users’ lives instead of detracting from them.

The harm that comes from unethical user experiences

All entrepreneurs should attempt to avoid using unethical tactics to exploit the user experience. If you fail to follow the above recommendations, consumers might accuse you of manipulating or misleading customers, targeting vulnerable populations, creating false expectations, misusing information or outright deceiving them. 

If you use unethical methods when designing the user experience, you won’t build trust with your customers or breed confidence in your brand. Word of mouth will also work against you; those customers will report negative experiences back to their friends and family. 

Ethical UX design leads to better customer relations and makes customers feel valued. When you hire a UX or user interface designer, be sure to have an ethical strategy for designing your business’s user interface, and you’ll have the support you need to move forward. The longevity of your business depends on a positive user experience and optimal customer service.

Tony Sherba contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.

author image
Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Sean Peek co-founded and self-funded a small business that's grown to include more than a dozen dedicated team members. Over the years, he's become adept at navigating the intricacies of bootstrapping a new business, overseeing day-to-day operations, utilizing process automation to increase efficiencies and cut costs, and leading a small workforce. This journey has afforded him a profound understanding of the B2B landscape and the critical challenges business owners face as they start and grow their enterprises today. In addition to running his own business, Peek shares his firsthand experiences and vast knowledge to support fellow entrepreneurs, offering guidance on everything from business software to marketing strategies to HR management. In fact, his expertise has been featured in Entrepreneur, Inc. and Forbes and with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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