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Hi, Business Owner. Meet Ethical Design.

August 31, 2021

Construction roadwork illuminated sign that says Expect Delays. Background is a business area of a city. It is nighttime.

Ethical design is doing good for others, our communities, and the planet. The practice is designing products with an understanding of the impact they have on real people and the planet and keeping in consideration our beliefs and morals.

Ethical design is part of my niche. It is part of my values and guiding beliefs. There is no clear handbook to ethical design. I am continuously learning about it. We have to constantly examine our assumptions. We have to think broader than we have been to make sure we're being inclusive and not using fear-based tactics. We have to challenge the systems we've gotten used to for design and what marketing/design gurus have told us to do. We have to trust our intuition.

"Ok, that's great, Lisa, but how does that apply to me as a small business owner?"

Take websites for example. That's a super broad example, so let's narrow it down to something small within a website. Let's talk about email pop-ups.

I loathe email pop-ups. I do. I'm sorry if you have one. But then again, I'm not sorry for my opinion of them.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, email pop-ups are those messages that pop up and take over the screen when you land on a website. They ask you to join an email list. Half the web "experts" out there have been saying adding these to your site is a must.

Imagine these three scenarios:

Scenario 1.

Someone is visiting your site for the first time. They are wanting to learn more about what you do and decide if they want to do business with you. Through your website, they are looking to trust you. Within 0.5-3 seconds of landing on your site, a giant "curtain" covers the whole thing and asks for a personal piece of their information – their email address. Sometimes it's in return for something like a discount. Sometimes it's offering some helpful tips in a PDF. Sometimes it's promising something in the future. These aren't bad marketing tactics alone. Except in a pop-up, it's preventing them from getting the info they came here for. Before that visitor even gets to determine if they like your stuff, you're asking something from them. I call this invasive unethical design.

Ok, scenario two.

A blind person is using a screen reader (text-to-speech computer software) and visits your site. The email pop-up appears. Suddenly, instead of the screen reader scanning the navigation items that help them decide where to go next, the user now has to navigate around this pop-up. Maybe they have to give in and hand over their email to make it go away. Maybe they can eventually navigate to the pop-up's close button. Maybe the user has to leave the site completely because the pop-up was never coded correctly in the first place to include important screen reader text. You've now wasted their time with something that could have been placed in a less prominent spot on your website's interface. I call this inaccessible unethical design.

The last scenario.

Now take a repeat user to your website. Our friend, the pop-up, is here. Again. The user mutters, "I already gave you my email. Go away already!" Your repeat visitor, who is very valuable to your business, is constantly annoyed whenever they visit your site. And they get to count on this annoyance being there whenever they return. I call this inconvenience unethical design.

See how one small thing you think will help your business may be hurting or hindering someone else? The web "experts" that have been saying you must capture emails in a pop-up are saying it because a pop-up benefits you. Who loses from it?

Who are we designing for then?

Let's go back to the broad idea of your website. It's a reflection of your brand and business, and you want to be proud of it. Your website is most likely a valuable money-making tool for you. You want to get as much as you can out of it. But ultimately, your website is made for someone else, not you. It should be designed with someone else in mind. Your website isn't you decorating your teenage self's bedroom to show off posters of bands you like. Your website is there so your user can get what they want (whether it's information, a product, an appointment, etc.) in the least amount of time and with the least number of roadblocks.

How can we use our new friend Ethical Design?

Here are some ideas for more ethically designed email collection:

  1. If your main objective is to collect emails, place a CTA (call to action) button within your website header section that links to an email signup form.
  2. Since after reading your content most visitors decide whether or not to subscribe to get more content from you, put an email signup at the end of your content. It also gives them some sort of direction after they’re done absorbing your info.
  3. Use them as content upgrades a.k.a. lead magnets. Your website already has great info (hopefully!) to help them make their decision and get the task done they came there to do. If you have extra useful info that you can provide them, use an email sign up form to collect their info in exchange for these extra helpful tips and resources.
  4. If you have a checkout process on your website (ecommerce site, online course site, booking functionality) and you normally would offer a percentage off their purchase by signing up for your list, put the email collection form on the cart page before they go through the checkout process.

None of the above ideas need to be an obstructive pop-up. They can be integrated smoothly into different places on your website making it more natural and user friendly for your visitors.

A man with a crossover bag walks past a wall with a mural that says Good.


Photo credits: Erik Mclean on Unsplash | Volkan Olmez on Unsplash