Moral licensing in the world of design

1 Jul 2017

US president Donald Trump. Image: Windover Way Photography/Shutterstock

UX design consultant Gareth Dunlop takes aim at US president Donald Trump and the practice of moral licensing.

After the first 100 days of the new American president turned out to be even more shambolic than might have been predicted, I turned to my favourite social and political commentator, Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker, to help me try to make sense of it all. I have long admired Gladwell’s writing, not just because he’s a brilliant storyteller, but because he shares my fascination with human behaviour in both its individual and social contexts, and is committed to the pursuit of facts as the foundation for his opinion.

Whilst he is a journalist and I am an experience design professional, the overlap in our work is clear both philosophical (the importance of observing human behaviour to understand the world) and practical (designing a better world through the pursuit of insight). So, my interest was personally driven but had a professional flavour to it.

Gladwell’s writing spans sociology, psychology and social psychology, with a particular interest in the unexpected implications of social sciences research. His specific talent lies in using science and research to explain the otherwise inexplicable. So, when the American people appointed a pathological liar to the White House – with a five-decade track record of bullying, self-serving greed and brash, tasteless opulence – to act as their champion, I needed Gladwell more than ever to help me understand what was going on.

I was sure if he could explain, using science and statistics, why such a disproportionately large number of billionaires were born in the 1950s; why the majority of Canadian professional ice-hockey players were born in January, February or March; and why Korean Airlines held such a poor safety record for decades, he could help straighten this out for me.

Gladwell’s observation is that people were prepared to overlook the less savoury elements of Trump’s rhetoric because of the human tendency toward moral licensing.

He tells the story of when his parents moved to London from the West Indies in the 1950s, their neighbour (who his family got on well with) would regularly comment to his (black) mother about how awful it was that black people were coming to Britain in such numbers and what a problem it was. What’s more, this neighbour was never less than cordial at all times, would have counted the Gladwells as friends, and never spotted the irony in the situation. (For added absurdity, the neighbour’s family were planning to move to South Africa to get away from the challenges of racism and multiculturalism.)

The mindset of “always-on optimisation” believes that every product can always get better, all the time’

Moral licensing is the mindset that argues,Well, because I have a friend who is [insert minority group here], I can’t possible be [insert prejudice here] because otherwise I couldn’t have that friend.

Moral licensing occurs in many aspects of life, including design.

Too many website owners have never spoken to users, or haven’t engaged with them in some time – or, worse still, think they can represent the user with self-reference – and thus adopt the view that they couldn’t possibly be user-ist’ because there was that one time when they made some kind of an effort.

This represents the worst of the some of my best friends are users’ mindset.

This outlook stands in stark contrast with the design philosophies underpinning the world’s most successful digital products. From global exemplars such as Google and Amazon, to big Irish success stories such as and Weddings Online, the mindset of always-on optimisation’ believes that every product can always get better, all the time, and the only way to achieve that is through a programme of ongoing improvement, founded on knowing users intimately.

The slightest hint of a commitment to facts would have saved The Donald from the embarrassment of claiming Obama’s birth certificate was fake (it isn’t), that more people were at his inauguration than Obama’s, and that he’s going to build a big wall (it’s mostly fence, right Donald?).

Are you making assumptions about your customers and their online needs right now that could be as catastrophic as some of The Donald’s policy suggestions? You need to find out, and that starts by reconnecting with your users.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing.  Clients include Three, Energia, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile. 

US president Donald Trump. Image: Windover Way Photography/Shutterstock

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.