One sunny morning earlier this year, Matt and I made a giant pot of Chemex and conducted a series of exercises to determine our brand. Covering our newly-tiled kitchen walls with post-it notes helped us better understand our shared values, priorities, and motivators. A theme that kept coming up was ethics.
We’ve both spent a long time working for big tech companies, watching technology become more interwoven in people’s everyday lives. Many of these changes are improvements for the better, but others have the potential to create harm. The tech industry often gets so excited about what we can do that we sometimes don’t stop to ask ourselves if we should do it.
We want to make the tech industry a more diverse and ethical place. We genuinely believe that technology is a tool to improve people’s lives, and that it’s more and more important that we wield it carefully, thoughtfully, and deliberately.
It’s all well and good saying we care about ethics, or signing whatever pledge might be making the rounds this week, or putting a #TechForGood hashtag on all our tweets. But if we don’t back that up with a clear and concrete declaration of what that actually means in practise, it’s just ethics-washing. (I made that up right now. Feel free to use it.)
So we’ve established some guidelines for what our ethics are and what that means in practise. And we’re making it public, because that keeps us accountable.
These ethical stances underpin every decision we make. It means we have long discussions about the suppliers and services we use. It means we balance cost and features with impact on the world. We aren’t ascetic about it, but we aim to make the best decisions possible. We don’t do anything without thinking about it.
Three is a lovely auspicious number. There’s three wishes, three little pigs, three musketeers, a holy trinity (or two), three witches, three Fates—and it’s a helpful number for making things beautiful, balanced, or hilarious, as seen by the rule of thirds, the rule of three, or any other three-rule.
Octopuses have three hearts, so we do too. (Metaphorically, of course.)
Inclusion is at the core of everything that we do. Technology has the power to be a social equaliser, but often new technical developments can serve to exclude, isolate, or silence people. Using historically corrupted data to teach a machine leads to a computer that’s just as racist (or sexist, or ableist, or homophobic…) as history. We want to stop taking the “easy” route and instead think about the impact we have. This shit matters.
In practise, this means always thinking about the different types of users who will be affected by our technical decisions. We use persona spectrums and consequence mapping. We design with accessibility at the forefront. We aren’t rigid about how we ask for user’s personal information, and we only ask when we have a good reason to do so. Our design system is rooted in inclusive principles and features accessible components—it’s also open source, so others can build on our work.
Respect means treating our users, clients, and anyone who our technology reaches the way we’d like to be treated.
In practise, this means we avoid designing or implementing dark patterns. We put users’ privacy and security at the forefront. We don’t trick, coerce, or manipulate people. We ask for permission and are clear about how we’re using any data you’ve chosen to entrust us with. We are open and transparent in everything we do, and how everything we build works. We don’t take VC funding and instead bootstrap our work, ensuring our sole responsibility is to our customers.
When we think of sustainability, we think of both environmental and economic resilience. This widens our scope and allows us to think more broadly about how our business impacts the world we all inhabit. How are our individual choices, on both a personal and a profession level, impacting the world at large? Are we following campground rules?
In practise, this means we’ve built a sustainable business model based on controlled and deliberate growth. We pay our taxes. Our primary responsibility is to our customers, not shareholders. We don’t take work with Halliburton, Goldman Sachs, or Enron (not that they’re offering).
We consider the environmental impact of our work. We’re evaluating options for greener hosting and our VPS uses renewable energy. We build sites to be as performant as possible (this site loads in about one second!). We have a printer, but we don’t use it all that much. We don’t commute anywhere (or even own a car) and our home office uses 100% renewable energy. (It may or may not help that we live in the windiest country in Europe. 🏴)
How these hearts define our business
Everything we do is derived from these three pillars. Our values, brand, and design principles (more on all of these later) all tie back to our ethics. Every decision we make—whether to include a pop-up here, which analytics package to use, or whether to pursue a new contract—is assessed through these lenses. Ethics aren’t the only metrics by which we make our decisions, but they’re a hugely important component.
The tricky thing about ethics—and being public about those ethics—is there’s a risk you might get it wrong. Getting a fact wrong in public is one thing, but getting your ethics wrong is a whole other thing entirely. Reputations have been made and ruined (mostly ruined) by a misguided tweet.
We’re okay with that risk. We respect people enough to think they’ll understand when we get it wrong and that we’re always learning. We’d rather try and fail than not try at all. We genuinely believe that by being as transparent as possible, we hold ourselves more accountable to our own standards.
So that’s where you come in! If you see us getting it wrong, or if we’re failing to consider things fully, or if we could be making better decisions, let us know! We don’t mind being wrong when it’s an opportunity to improve our future selves. ❤️❤️❤️
Sarah London Semark
Chief Design Octopus. Advocate for the user. Believes in constructive criticism. Buys books based on their covers.