Navigating the ethical minefield of digital design

A practical guide to digital design with a conscience

Book: Misusability

» Preview the worksheets

Update November 2019. This book is still in progress in various draft forms and will likely morph into something new. I am currently researching power structures and influence in the digital age. The ideas and concepts and templates are still relevant and I’ll of course keep you updated via my newsletter Pandamonium on any progress. Also, I have released my handbook, Digital Compassion, to address many of the important issues of getting real with ethical design!

As we are racing to build the best solutions for the brightest digital world there are casualties along the way. Designers and builders often fail to acknowledge, or manage, the negative impact their digital solutions may be having on people and the planet. Understandably it is painful to realize that the tools you create can cause harm, but suppressing those insights will only hurt more. In this book Per Axbom shows what can – and often will – go wrong, and guides you through a process for designing with a conscience.

Examples of misusability

A misuse of usability — what I refer to as misusability — is what happens when we use techniques for removing friction and obstacles in an effort to encourage a specific outcome, and these also lead to significant negative impact. As such misusability can both be a conscious act and an inadvertent effect of good intent. Negative impact may encompass psychological stress, financial loss, enforced inequality or acts that clash with personal goals.

Here are some ways organizations contribute to misusability:

  • Allowing the growth of a culture of racial profiling in an online forum without intervening.
  • Sending notifications intending to increase usage of a service but instead important notifications trigger anxiety and are ignored.
  • Covertly using personal data to provide a “better experience” but at the same time exposing this data to groups with maleficent intent.
  • Streamlining a purchase process in such a way that individuals buy the wrong thing, or more than is in their best interest.

Topics covered

Learn how to manage negative impact and “usability misuse”

Understand outcome vs. impact

Understand your ethical framework

Stop misusability before it happens

Set up an early warning system

Minimize damage when misusability happens

Communicate misusability to stakeholders

Create a culture of awareness

Understand future challenges

Boost work satisfaction

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Reflections, tools and inspiration

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Misusability worksheets

Templates and exercises supporting ethical design

While many people are talking about the “why” and “should have” of ethical design I am intent on contributing to the how. I make these worksheets available publicly at no cost to support responsible innovation. Feedback is always appreciated and I love to hear how they are used. I do appreciate when you credit me and link back to axbom.eu or axbom.blog.

Per Axbom

Per Axbom


Per Axbom is a Swedish communication theorist born in Liberia. For two decades he has educated digital professionals and helped organizations with digital usability and accessibility. Per makes tech safe and compassionate through design, coaching and teaching. You can hear his voice on UX Podcast.

Digital compassion book cover Per's recent handbook on managing ethics in tech, Digital compassion, is available to order from Amazon in Kindle format. Send an e-mail to Per for more options.

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