Ethical web design: An introduction to ethical and unethical practices

As an online business, you are constantly looking for ways to improve sales or conversions. The placement of a button or a popup might make a new customer, or a more simple payment system might shorten the checkout time and catch more customers before they change their minds.

We want to create a great experience for our customers and make sure they return to our website the next time they need a product, but sometimes we end up focusing more on landing sales than keeping up with our standards. 

In this article, we will talk about what ethical web design is and why it is important both for us and for our visitors. We will also show you some examples of unethical practices and a few good ones to give you an idea of the concept.

What is ethical web design?

Ethical web design in itself covers a large category of subjects and is not necessarily meant to focus on only good and bad practices. Simply put, it forces you to question how your website serves its visitors. 

Some of the questions you might ask yourself are: Is my website accessible to a wide audience and includes an easy-to-read language? Do I protect my users’ privacy and do I use sustainable methods? These are some of the questions that might be asked when thinking about ethical web design.

When you make your website and content more available to people you start to improve your overall user experience, improve your organic SEO and improve the likelihood of customers coming back next time they need your service.

Examples of unethical practices

To better understand what ethical web design is, let’s take a look at a few unethical practices and then afterward in the next section turn them around to become an ethical practice. Please notice that these examples are not the only ways to be unethical, we are only scratching the surface.

Creating a sense of urgency

The first example that we would like to present to you is one where a typical web shop is intentionally creating a sense of urgency. They are creating this sense of urgency by displaying a text on the product page stating that there is only 1 item left in stock and that 2 other users are already looking at the same item. 

If the visitor is truly interested in this item, they will feel a sense of urgency and the result of that is that many would buy the item because they don’t want to risk not getting it.

This is a good sales strategy in itself because you land more sales than you otherwise would. But manipulating visitors into becoming customers for the sole reason that you have created a sense of urgency is unethical. It is especially unethical if you have more than 1 item left in stock and reality, no other visitors are looking at the product.

Automatically converting trials into paid subscriptions

Another unethical practice could be a user signing up for a free 30 days trial and then having to fill in the credit card details beforehand. In the eyes of business, it might be good practice and it probably brings in lots of revenue when customers are forgetting to cancel their trial. But was it really what the customer wanted?

The customer signed up to try your service for a free 30 days trial. The intention was most likely to try out the service and then after 30 days decide whether it is worth continuing. Instead of having peace of mind and feeling safe trying out your service, the customer is now anxious and thinks more about when to stop the trial so that he/she won’t have to pay.

Going through a trial period feeling anxious and unsafe is most likely going to make the customer cancel the subscription by the end of the month since they now associate your service with anxiety.

Listing prices to make the amount look smaller

This is probably one of the most common things used by stores all around the world, but do you know why this is being done? A product that costs 40USD is often listed as 39.99USD. If you look closely at those two prices then your brain automatically thinks that the 39.99 number is way smaller than the 40 number and that means you are more likely to buy the product if it looks cheaper.

You can do the same experiment with a child. If you offer them 1 coin with a higher value or 5 coins with a lower value, then most kids will choose the 5 coins despite the lower value simply because it is more money/more coins. It is the same way prices work in the store. Showing you a number that looks lower makes your brain think the deal is better and therefore you will be more likely to buy it.

Examples of ethical practices

In the previous section, we showed you some examples of unethical practices that are often seen in the real world. In this section, we will show you the same examples, but instead, they will be turned into ethical practices.

Creating a sense of urgency (Ethical example)

In this section, we were creating a sense of urgency that would make our visitors buy our products because they were scared of not making it or having time to think about it. 

To turn this unethical practice into something ethical, we can start by removing the text on our product page stating that there are only 1 or a few items left and that others are already looking. In reality, the customer doesn’t need to know that. The only information the customer needs is that you have the item in stock.

Now that we have taken away the text, the customer gets a chance to think about whether they need the product or not. You are protecting your customers’ best interest by letting them decide instead of manipulating them into buying your products.

Automatically converting trials into paid subscriptions (Ethical example)

The last time we talked about this, we were letting customers sign up for a 30-day free trial, but before they could start we would require them to fill in their credit card details. The reason we wanted these details was to automatically turn trial customers into paying subscribers without their consent. So once the trial period was over they would automatically be converted into paying subscribers and their credit card will be billed.

Instead of using this method, we could let the customer sign up for a 30-day free trial without adding their credit card details. This will ensure them that they in a calm state can try out the product without being forced to pay or stop their subscription before it turns into a subscription.

Doing so will make the customer feel calm and happy about the situation and it will let them explore your service in a calm state. By the end of the trial, you have shown them goodwill and if they like your service they will fill in their card details and continue with a subscription. There will of cause also be customers that don’t continue their subscription, but in the end, they wouldn’t have done that anyway.

Listing prices to make the amount look smaller (Ethical example)

Before we were listing prices a bit lower to make it seem much cheaper and to trick the customer into thinking that the deal had a greater value for them.

To make this example ethical we can stop pricing our products in a way that manipulates customers into buying and instead list the products as they are supposed to. So instead of 39.99USD, we list it as 40USD, and instead of 25.99USD, we list it as 26USD.

Final words

Ethical web design is a broad category and it covers many things, but in this article, we have given you a few good examples of unethical and ethical practices. Many of these practices are seen daily in either stores or webshops and now that you know a few of them you might be thinking an extra time before buying a product.

If you are interested in learning more about ethical practices, then we recommend reading: The ethical design handbook – Trine Falbe, Martin Michael Frederiksen, and Kim Andersen. This book will explain to you in detail what ethical design is and give you tons of useful examples to make you understand where we can improve and why we should do so.

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Michael Andersen
Michael Andersen

Michael Andersen is the author of Sustainable Web Design In 20 Lessons and the co-founder of Sustainable WWW (World-wide-web), an organization teaching sustainable practices. With a passion for web design and the environment, Michael solves puzzles to make the internet more sustainable.

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