Products and services are not neutral; they produce what they are designed to do. The perspectives, assumptions, biases, and decisions of the people involved in designing can introduce or amplify harm. Understanding, acknowledging, and prioritizing equity can result in safer, more equitable access to government services and programs for all, particularly for those in marginalized groups.
As designers, we have a responsibility to uphold ethical practices and avoid actions that might bring harm to the people we work with and are designing for. These include:
Without active reflection and resistance, it can be easy to unintentionally perpetuate structural inequities. In the context of 18F’s work, equity pauses are helpful because they create intentional space for individuals and teams to think about potential equity issues as they are designing or building digital products. Equity pauses are just one tool you can use to increase trust and psychological safety and align on impact. Indicators that an equity pause might be particularly helpful include:
You’ll find specific ethical practices to reduce harm embedded throughout our UX guide. They are centered on values and principles that guide how we work and how we want to show up in our work.
Ethics and roles
Ethics requires us to consider our role(s) in the impact we create with our work. We often have multiple roles over the course of our work in government. It’s important to consider the potential impacts these roles have on the people our work serves.
You as a government employee
As a government employee, you are the face of the government and represent the history of actions and inaction by the government to different groups of the public. The people you interact with in your role may make assumptions about you based on their past experiences with the government. They may also not distinguish between their experiences with different federal agencies or between federal, state, or local government.
You as a designer and project team member
As a designer, you have power and privilege to influence and decide how someone experiences a product or service. And as a project team, you have the collective power to do so at scale. We should acknowledge that role and responsibility and ensure how we uphold and practice ethical principles. These should include building capacity, sharing power, and reducing harm. Consider who benefits, who decides, who’s missing, and who or what might be harmed by your research.
These links do not imply endorsement but are shared here as other resources on this topic:
- OMB’s Equity Learning Community Session 4: Ethics of Engagement and “Doing No Harm” with Alba Villamil and Julie Strothman (must be logged into Max.gov to access)
- CFPB’s Equity Centered Design Guidelines
- 228 Accelerator’s equityXdesign framework
- Shalini Agrawal’s “Equity Pause Questions”
- Lesley-Ann Noel and Marcelo Paiva’s Learning to Recognize Exclusion