What power do we have facing unethical technologies?

February 3, 2022 / Virág Sákovits ([email protected])

At Acter we design for collaboration and sense-making rather than conversion and engagement. Technology shouldn’t distract us or divide us, it should enhance our collective abilities to solve problems and strengthen our capacities to tackle our biggest global challenges. Ethical design should be looked at as a benefit for both users and the business rather than a roadblock.

Reframing the insidious effects of technology requires a collective understanding of unethical patterns. This understanding has to be built on the experience from using those systems and asking the right questions. What is ethical vs unethical design? How dark patterns are being used and how do they affect us? How to take control back? And what resources are out there? Those are the questions we have to answer.

Photo by Mati Mango from Pexels

What is ethical design?

Designing ethically means considering the context of the product you create. Ethical design is about empathizing with the audience you are designing for, and asking whether the design helps or harms them. Humans - everyone who will be affected by the digital solution you are creating - should be at the core of design decisions. It sounds simple enough to say that however, the context often gets lost when accessibility and inclusiveness are not being taken into consideration throughout the involvement of the users.

Ethics are the moral compass of humans - as designers, we need to master our ethical skills to help us grow such as our: moral sensitivity, moral creativity and moral advocacy.

“Before we are designers, we are humans. User experience and interface design should aim to inform and empower people, not violate and abuse their human rights”

said Sage Cheng, Design and UX Lead at Access Now.

What is unethical design ?

When talking about unethical design a few words can come into our minds: captology, hook patterns, distraction methods, infinite engagement. Those are all considered to be dark patterns that are blatantly unethical - they refer to interface design tactics that persuade users into doing things they are unaware of or otherwise would not do. It is one of the major contributing factors to undermining people's digital rights and agency.

An example of this has the name of “Roach Motel '' because the user gets into the situation easily but it's hard to get out of it such as unsubscribing from a website, newsletter or membership.

We don’t click randomly: many designs deliberately leverage our deepest vulnerabilities by promoting compulsive behavior that compromises our autonomy and well-being. “

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

How does unethical design affect us ?

Persuasive technologies and designs are affecting our everyday lives :

Losing sight of what is important ‍‍: notifications (red dots, vibrations) are constant triggers that makes everything seem urgent

Distraction: unnecessary distractions in form of advertisements, pop-ups or autoplay videos, Users can be harmed by distractions when their attention is taken away from a higher priority task.

Making us prone to confirmation bias: The algorithms learn our preferences, thereby curating the information we receive, to the point where we no longer feel part of a cohesive social group.

Weaponizing fear: Negative information appeals to people's feelings and affects them more strongly than positive information. Our brains process negative information - especially fear-related stimuli - faster and more thoroughly than positive information. As a result, social media posts generating fear, anger, and disgust spread much faster than positive posts.

How to take control back?

The Center for Human Technology came out with a few simple steps that can be taken right now to regain control.

  • Reduce the amount of notifications : Reclaim time by turning off notifications or adjusting preferences.

  • Removing apps that profits from distraction and misinformation : Use VSCO to share photos - Message through Signal - Watch videos through Vimeo

  • Expose yourself to different perspectives: Checking news sites such as Allsites exposes us to information from all sides of the political spectrum to better understand the world and each other.

  • Setting boundaries : Create clear blocks of time without technology and engage beyond digital panels.

What resources are available ?

Tools for everyday usage

AllSides™ strengthens our democratic society with balanced news, diverse perspectives, and real conversation. is a not-for-profit project compiling a list of ethical tech products— from search engines and smartphones to streaming services and social media.

The Dark Patterns Tip Line came together to collect dark patterns to better understand how technology is exploiting people. You can report dark patterns you spotted while using digital solutions.

Center for Humane Technology provides toolkits and courses for a wide range of age and tech savinnes in order to understand how social media works and how to take control back.

Blacklight is a Real-Time Website Privacy Inspector.

Humour against Hacking uses Humorous awareness and campaigns with cartoons on information security and cyber risk, personal data and GDPR etc.

Tools and principles for designers

How did we build our design principles on ethics ?

These principles has been integrated into our practices at Acter from the beginning, in order to ensure that the product is ethical at it's core. Designing responsible digital products requires a collective understanding of our role in the ethical landscape.


Data is owned by the users.


Build for the community by the community

We base our work on needs, not assumptions.


We are building a tool supporting transformative action and global interconnectedness,

not a social media,


We facilitate not dictate.

We continuously remind ourselves who we are building this for.

Non-addictive design

Physical presence over online presence

Online presence to support physical presence

Human centered

Including the human factors, such as trust, human and social capital and motivational factors


No ads

No sell out of data to third parties


No information overload

No distractions

Throughout my journey at Acter, it has become clear that problems such as unethical design won't be solved from within our comfort zone As a designer bringing a different approach influences the decision making at the interface and business level however, tackling infrastructure decisions are fundamentally political challenges, that we will only solve as citizens, not designers - Tim Berners-Lee the creator of the Web was quoted saying. "We [have] demonstrated that the Web failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places… The increasing centralization of the Web ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

If you have thoughts about how we can broaden our design principles - I'd love to hear from you in the comment below or via email ( [email protected]).

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