A Framework for Ethics Assessment of Persuasive Design from a User Autonomy Perspective


The use of persuasion has become ubiquitous within information technologies, such as on the web, in digital platforms, and within mobile applications. Recent years have seen the emergence of problematic persuasive design practices, which have been highlighted in literature under the paradigm of 'dark patterns'. These designs can trick, coerce or manipulate users into acting in ways that are not intended by them or not in their best interests. Individual autonomy has been argued to be one of the normative lenses for the evaluation of persuasive designs. However, there is a lack of systematic approaches which can help designers understand the ethics of persuasion from this lens. To address this gap, this thesis proposes a framework for the ethics assessment of persuasive design from an autonomy perspective. Eight investigative studies were conducted for the purposes of this research. To understand the prevailing autonomy concerns, a content analysis of 151 dark pattern definitions and descriptions from literature was conducted. A qualitative interview study (n=40) was conducted to understand the user experience of persuasive designs and to identify factors which influence this experience. Ethics concepts were then integrated within school and university level design education. An exploratory study was conducted to understand the needs and gaps in ethics education. Two experimental studies evaluated the impact of ethics education on student experiences, design assessments, design outcomes and design thinking (n=419 and n=15). Based on these findings, a framework for ethics assessment of persuasive design was developed grounded in existing models of UX design and behavior change. The usefulness of the framework was evaluated in a design education context and a lab-protocol study against existing pedagogical approaches (n=38 and n=20). The proposed framework was found to be effective in helping designers identify and assess autonomy issues in the digital context. Implications of this framework are discussed in the thesis. Recommendations for design educators, practitioners and policymakers are also discussed.