Principles for Good Technology

A set of principles to consider when designing ethical technology, balancing the intentions of design and use, and preventing ethical missteps.

More about the set

Ought before can

The fact that we can do something does not mean that we should. There are lots of possible worlds out there – lots of things that could be made or built. Ethical design is about ensuring what we build helps create the best possible world. Before we ask whether it's possible to build something, we need to ask why we would want to build it at all.


Never design technology in which people are merely a part of the machine. Some things matter in ways that can't be measured or reduced to their utility value. People, ecosystems, some kinds of animal life and political communities shouldn't be used as tools that can be incorporated into design. They must be the beneficiaries of your design, not elements of a machine or design system.


Maximise the freedom of those affected by your design. Technology is meant to be an extension of human will. It's meant to empower us to achieve goals we otherwise couldn't. Technology can't achieve this goal if it interferes with our freedom. We need to make design choices that support people's ability to make free choices about how they want to live and engage with technology.But remember: maximising freedom doesn't always mean maximising choice – sometimes too much choice can be paralysing.


Anticipate and design for all possible uses. Technology is usually designed with a specific use case – or set of use cases – in mind. Problems often arise when users deviate from the intended use case. It's entirely possible to predict the different ways people will use our designs, if we take the time to think it through. Failing to imagine alternate uses and their implications is risky and unethical. Doing so can alert us to potentially harmful uses we can safeguard against, or potential benefits we can maximise through good design.

Net benefit

Maximise good, minimise bad. The things we build should make a positive contribution to the world – they should make it better. But more than this, we should also be mindful of the potentially harmful side-effects of our technology. Even if it does more good than bad, ethical design requires us to reduce the negative effects as much as possible.


Treat like cases in a like manner; different cases differently. Technology designs can carry biases, reflect the status quo or generate blind spots. The implication of this can mean some groups of people are treated negatively on the basis of irrelevant or arbitrary factors such as race, age, gender, ethnicity or any number of unjustifiable considerations. Fairness requires that we present justifications for any differences in the ways our design treats each user group. If some groups do experience greater harm or less benefit than others we must consider why this his the case and if our reasons are defensible.


Design to include the most vulnerable user. Whenever we identify intended user profiles and use cases, we also act to isolate nonusers from the design consideration. This creates the risk that design excludes people who might benefit were they considered in the process. Design can reinforce social disadvantage, or it can help people overcome it. But it can only do this if we bear in mind all the possible users, without dismissing some groups as 'edge cases'.


Design with honesty, clarity and fitness of purpose. Design is, in one sense, a promise. You are promising to solve a problem your users are experiencing. Like all promises, you should honour this promise. You must be honest and clear about the ability and limitations of your design. Moreover, your design should be tailored to the problem it's trying to solve – and be intended to solve a genuine problem. Good design serves an ethical purpose and does so in efficient and effective ways.

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