First Do No Harm: Toward a Hippocratic Oath for Designers

Last updated on 28 November 2019

Primum non nocere

First, do no harm. This phrase represents the concept of non-maleficence in medicine, purporting that it is sometimes better to do nothing than to do something harmful. It is a core tenet of medical ethics, taught to medical students around the world.

Why don’t design students get mandatory classes in design ethics?

Whitney Hess wrote a great article called, Guiding Principles for UX Designers, the title of which is self-explanatory. Her #2 guideline, don’t hurt anyone, is reminiscent of the Hippocratic Oath (again, medicine) but her explanation is much more general than what I’m getting at here.

First, Do Not Overdesign

Non-maleficence in medical ethics is in place to prevent medical practicioners from intervening when the intervention risks causing more harm than help. Design intervenes in the way things work, look, feel, behave, etc. by making decisions for users, consumers, clients, etc. so that they have to make the fewest decisions possible. That’s why we learn design, so that we know which decisions we should be making for other people.

Overdesign then, in this context, is making decisions for a user that impede the user’s freedom in ways that detract from her user experience.

Notice the two components there:

  1. Impeding users’ freedom
  2. Detracting from user experience

Component number two is important, because I am not trying to denounce the practice of impeding users’ freedom across the board. That’s part of what we designers do. It only becomes a problem when users actually want or need the “freedoms” we “design away.”

Apple, for example, uses its closed iPhone/iPod+iTunes platform as a unique selling point. It takes away the freedom of downloading apps and music wherever you want but gives users added security and a more robust user experience. This is like my mom cooking me dinner: I have no “freedom” in what she makes, but I  know for (damn) sure that it’s going to taste wonderful. Linux operating systems, on the other hand, are more like cooking yourself; you have ultimate freedom in what you have for dinner, but it will only be good if you are skilled enough to make it good.

Dinner and Hegel’s Dialectic

Diagram of Freedom in User Experience
Different UX philosophies imply different power structures between user and system. N.B. The term “casual user” refers not to users who use their systems casually but to those, who do not want to configure things, they want their systems to “just work.”

Hegel’s Master-slave Dialectic (Herrschaft und Knechtschaft) illustrates how a Master is dependent on her slave on multiple levels. The principle is applicable to almost any relationship where one entity performs actions to the benefit of another; they might as well also be referred to as Lord-servant, Teacher-learner, Citizen-government, or User-system.

To reuse my example above, if my mom is cooking for me, I don’t have the freedom to choose what is served for dinner. This means that even though my mom is technically the “slave” (only because she’s cooking dinner) in this example, she is in the real position of power, because she makes the decisions on what I will eat. I give up my freedom willingly to have a wonderful meal. Once I learn more about cooking, I may want to cook for myself, trading ease-of-dinner for the freedom to customize and eat what I want.

So What Does That Mean for Design?

As designers, we are in charge of crafting systems for Users or slaves for Masters. In many instances, especially when we are designing for users who crave simplicity and ease-of-use above all else, because they do not have the time or patience to customize.

People trust us designers to make decisions that improve their lives.

In that, we have power. With great power comes great responsibility. It is our duty to take this power seriously, not to abuse it by forcing people to live as we think they should.

I hereby swear to empower people, not exploit them.

Yeah, that means I’ll work hard to strike the perfect balance between simplicity & function, security & freedom. That’s where the art part of design comes in, and that’s why design is fun. If we had a designer’s oath, what do you think should be in it?

2 August 2018: Special thanks to Lawrence Francell for pointing out a typo! I’ve re-written the passage for clarity and elegance.