Ethics: should UX be regulated?

I recently attended a workshop at UX Bristol about ‘the unintended consequences of design’ which was run by User Research consultant Mike Harris. He talked about how although our intentions are positive when we “drop products into the delicate ecosystem of human existence”, there are sometimes unintended negative effects such as bullying and addiction. 

From there a really interesting discussion developed about regulation and it got me thinking.  It got me thinking so much that I gave a talk entitled ‘Should UX be regulated’ at our July UCD Bristol meetup which was followed by a really engaging and lively discussion on which this piece is based.

As UXers, we all have a responsibility to make things better and to use our skills responsibly. But does this mean UX requires regulation? It's something we’re all familiar with and it forms part of everyday life for millions of people working in many industries - builders, lawyers, doctors and more. For the most part, these regulations make life better. 

Protecting end users

It stops large businesses building market monopolies, protects us from taxi drivers taking the long way round and overcharging in cash only. It’s (in theory) stopped bad old Uncle Rupert from influencing elections. And in all cases it works to protect the consumer from whatever devious things businesses thought they could get away with in the past.

Bad business practices happen everywhere, in UX design too. So you could argue that regulation is a great idea right? Well, actually, UXers and designers specifically, are already subject to plenty of restrictions. Not in a formal sense no, but there are plenty of rules that affect our work (I’m not a lawyer, this does not constitute legal advice and is not an exhaustive list), most likely because as a profession we work all over the place, across many different industry verticals, each with their own regulation including things like:  

  • Data Protection Act 2018 - GDPR (All)
  • The Equality Act 2010 (Accessibility)
  • The Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013 (All)
  • The Consumer Rights Act 2015 (All) 
  • The E-Commerce Regulations 2002 (Ecom)
  • SLC 25 Informed choices (Energy) 
  • 1986 Construction and Use Regulations (Automotive)
  • Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (Fin Svs)

Would regulation benefit users?  

With all of this in mind, do we really need to introduce specific regulations to the UX design industry? I’d argue not. I’m all about ethics in design but I have my doubts about something formal working in practice. For a start, regulation would stifle innovation and creativity would go into skirting compliance instead of making things better. 

Further to this, design compliance would erode budgets and profitability, and would reduce the opportunities and incentives to innovate. In a scenario where design is regulated, more products would be delivered undesigned and businesses would take fewer risks, especially if there were no budget to collect evidence and make informed decisions.

In conclusion, and I think you’re probably aware of my opinion by now, I don’t think UX should be regulated. It would mean an increase in the cost of design. It'd mean less money available to spend on user experience and research and probably, less innovation and worse products. No thanks to that!