Ethics in web design: an interview with Morten Rand-Hendriksen [Video]

9 min read
Oliver Lindberg

Morten Rand-Hendriksen, senior staff instructor at LinkedIn Learning and, gave an emotional talk about the ethics of web design at WordCamp Europe (watch the livestream video from 7:35 and also read his Smashing Magazine article on the topic).

In the presentation he introduced a method for ethical decision making in web design and tech. We caught up with him afterwards to discuss his ethical framework, accessibility and performance considerations, why it would be irresponsible for WordPress to power 50 percent of the web, and more.

What’s made you focus on ethical web design?

MR: The web community basically built a social experiment. It’s altering human beings and guiding behaviour in a very odd way. When we make decisions about our designs and how we build things, they’re made on behalf of our end users. Every design decision, whether it’s about the colour you’re using, where you place a button, how you structure your database or what kind of module you use to do something – they’re all decisions made on behalf of the people at the end of that chain.

And when you think about performance and accessibility specifically, the question is how do we give the end user the capability to use the website at all.

How should we approach accessibility?

MR: People always ask if they should spend the extra time to make blind people be able to get access to their content. But that’s not what accessibility is all about! If you publish information online, anyone should be able to access that information in whatever way they want. The web is text-based, so all that styling that you put on it is just visual. You should be able to grab the text and get it, so that you can consume it in whatever way you think is useful, whether that means looking at it on a screen reader, have the computer read it back to you, or convert it to Braille. As the community is international, it should also be possible to take the text and convert it into another language. It needs to be marked up and have the right tags on it. That’s the accessibility part.

What about the performance part?

MR: People often want things to load fast because they live in North America and when they go into a tunnel and the internet doesn’t work, they get annoyed. That’s not what it’s about. Go to Northern Canada, to a deep valley in Norway, or to Africa, where the internet runs off a single mobile phone that then distributes the network out for the entire village. Or go to a country that is in some sort of humanitarian crisis, and the internet has broken down and people need information.

Those are the people that need access to content. They need accessible content, and they need performant content that doesn’t try to download every image on the page and that doesn’t waste resources by downloading stylesheets that you’re not going to use. They just need information. Give people enough data to get access to the content but don’t waste a single bit of information that shouldn’t be there. So instead of serving up this monolithic stylesheet that has every possible style for every possible scenario, we should only give them the styles they need. And if they need more, we’ll add it in as you get access to it.

What are the four questions that designers should ask themselves, the framework you’ve come up with?
MR: I talk about ethics in tech a lot but I’m not passing a moral judgement. What I mean is that we don’t have the tools to evaluate our decisions properly. Ethics are a methodology for determining if a certain decision is good or bad. There are many different moral philosophies, and they all compete with each other.

I’m proposing that we take the four main moral philosophies – consequentialism, duty ethics, virtue ethics and a new thing called capability approach. Then we take the best part of each, string them together and say our process includes having to pass a test for each. So to make a decision you have to test it against these four moral philosophies. So I have condensed them into four questions:

  • Why am I doing this? What world am I building?
    You start by asking why. Why are you making this? What kind of future are you building by doing this? Any time you make a decision, you’re trying to make a change in the world. That change may be to get people to sign up to your newsletter but you’re trying to get them to sign up for a reason. You want to give them information or get them to do something. So you’re asking why am I doing this? What kind of capability am I granting or enabling the person at the other end of this conversation? So when you think through that, and you actually realise that this decision changes another person’s world and makes a future for that person and you’re comfortable with that future that you’re guiding that person into, you move to the next step.
  • Who do I become? Will future me agree with this decision?
    What kind of standard am I setting for myself and what type of person do I turn into by making this decision? And once you’re happy with the kind of person you are and you say when I come back to this 10 years from now, I will look back on this decision and say this is the right thing, I can see how this led me to where I am today and this is where I wanted to be.
  • Am I upholding my duties of care? What precedence am I setting?
    Who am I responsible for and how do I take responsibility for the outcomes that are happening here? I have responsibilities to my client, to the end user, to the world that the end user lives in, to everyone that they interact with and myself.
  • What are the consequences?
    This doesn’t just cover the immediate consequence of getting people to do what you want but what also the long term consequences.

If you build these questions into your design process, you’ll discover that each of them allows you to explore what you’re trying to do in a whole new way. It opens the door to all these new possibilities, and it really makes you think carefully about what you’re doing. It’s not a moralistic blanket covering the fires of creativity. It’s actually more like a hearth that controls your creative flames and makes sure you don’t burn down the house.

Why do you think the goal of powering 50 percent of the web on WordPress would be irresponsible?
MR: Any kind of monopoly or monoculture is dangerous. Thirty percent is a very high number, because that means any change that we make to WordPress – like some trivial thing like changing the entire editor – impacts millions of people,who have basically no say in that decision!

As WordPress grows, our influence gets deeper and deeper, and we end up actually building the future for all the people who interact with us. Not just the people who use WordPress but also the people who interact with the websites they build. So with WordPress’s growth comes WordPress’s responsibility.

Growing too big becomes dangerous, because it gives us too much control. You don’t want to create a world where you’re the only one that makes decisions. You want a pluralistic world where there are alternatives, so I think the WordPress project should actively support competitors. Matt Mullenweg talks about going to and talking at conferences that focus on competitor software like Drupal, and there are Drupal people here at this WordCamp – that’s a good thing. WordPress now needs to focus on growing the open web ecosystem and be a guiding and leading part of it but it cannot lead the whole thing. The moment we own the ecosystem and other things go away, we have too much control.

What will the future of WordPress be like?

MR: In five years the web will be fundamentally different. Last year I talked about how Gutenberg needed to be ready for VR and people thought I was nuts. It’s not crazy at all. All these big tech companies are very aggressively working on it, and the technology will change a lot in the next couple of years.

Everything we’re currently doing assumes that content is consumed on a screen that is rectangular and needs to be held. Unless we evolve to allow for content to be consumed with other means, we’ll just become outdated. Gutenberg is one of the things that has the potential of building a path to that future.

I consume almost all of the internet through my eReader, for example. I have severe dyslexia,  and I have a really hard time reading content on the web, so I use Pocket. Anytime I see something I want to read, I tag it. I have a Kobo eReader, which syncs to my Pocket account, and when I open the article in Pocket, it’s formatted in the font and the font size I want. So I consume your article, on your website that you spent weeks designing, on my eReader. I’ve never seen your ads, your designs and your font choices – I’ve just seen the text. That’s how people are going to consume WordPress content in the future, probably not even on an eReader. They’ll have an AI thing read it back to them and ask it to condense an article into a shorter version.  

The framework we are building WordPress on needs to get ready for that reality and prepare the community for a time when being a WordPress designer means designing the content to be accessible to people.

Also check out Part 1 of our interview with Morten, in which he gives us the lowdown on WP Rig, a progressive WordPress starter theme and build process combined into one.

Both photos by Ivan Gatic, released under CC-BY SA.