a framework for Equitable Interfaces/Ethical Experiences (EI/EX)

via Ben Boudreax, Michelle Priest, and the EI/EX summer sprint team

On March 14, 2021, Todd Richmond published a blog noting the limitations of existing User Interface/User Experience (UI/UX) design and calling for a new field that will ensure that technology development decisions reflect broader ethical and equity considerations. To highlight the need for tech designers to extend beyond their traditional UI/UX principles, he called this Equitable Interfaces/Ethical Experiences (EI/EX). 

A group of Pardee RAND students and RAND Corporation researchers have taken that initial EI/EX idea and run, asking: What is required for tech applications to appropriately include ethical and equity considerations? How can ethics and equity be part of technology design and use?

Building from existing UI/UX design principles (such as consistency and accessibility), and learning from socio-technical systems studies that shed light on the social consequences of technologies, EI/EX is a design approach that ensures that persons affected by technology are included as collaborators and that benefits accrue across communities. 

This is a major undertaking that will necessarily need to be tailored to specific technologies and community perspectives. It will require tech developers to seriously consider their ethical responsibilities beyond promoting daily active users. It will require institutions integrating technology—especially those that serve the public for instance in education, criminal justice, or health care—to ensure that the technology they leverage is not creating unintended harm. It will require shifting incentives, building tech literacy, and engaging a broad range of often marginalized communities to elicit their views.

We’ve begun by building a conceptual framework that pulls together an interdisciplinary set of approaches and tools across three disparate fields:

  • Technology design
  • Complex systems analysis 
  • Community partnership.

We’ve developed an EI/EX framework, along with a list of tools and references, that can help researchers and community members apply and refine the approach. Of course, this will be an iterative process subject to additional input, but the initial framework identifies several overarching steps, including: framing the technology use case, building trusting community partnerships, documenting the existing status quo, identifying the context and distribution of impacts (including benefits and burdens), and ensuring that perspectives are incorporated into technology deployments in a sustainable and regularized way.

We’re continuing to build a community of practice around these approaches and will seek to pioneer the EI/EX framework in a specific context. To bring some more concrete details to the framework, we have proposed to pilot EI/EX in the context of educational technology. This is an area that has rapidly expanded over the COVID-19 pandemic with the shift to remote schooling, and there are a range of new classroom management and student surveillance tools that schools have leveraged to assist with educational goals and to assess risk of students for committing violence or suicide. But these new tools also raise significant risks of violating privacy, evaluating or disciplining students on an inequitable basis, and otherwise posing harm. 

The educational and mental health challenges for students abound, however new proprietary black box technology has been rapidly integrated into K-12 learning without much community engagement and without clarity on how the tech is used and for what purposes. Caregivers might not be aware of the ways the Chromebook and iPads distributed to students might be used to track students’ activity on the Internet. Schools themselves might not understand the capabilities that this private sector software can bring and are still determining appropriate processes for how they should be used.

Simply put, if there is any area in which technology should be developed and designed with ethics and equity in mind, the use of technology in public schools is one. And this will require actually engaging community members to ensure they are aware of the ways the tech might be used, and what oversight or safeguards would ensure that concerns are met. We believe that the tools associated with EI/EX will help, but we seek further input on EI/EX can help and to build a larger community of practice to promote these ideas. Please contact us if you would like to be involved!

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