Adding Ethics to Design Sprints

Matthew Stephens
6 min readNov 4, 2019


“You are responsible for what you put into the world. And you are responsible for the effects those things have upon the world.”

― Victor Papanek

The Current Problem

Design sprints have fundamentally transformed the way we solve problems. There is no doubt that future products will be more useful because of what Jake Knapp has provided, but there is a crucial piece missing from the conversation. We need to be asking “What could go wrong?” with each solution we consider. The tech world is plagued by addiction and abuse, in part because designers didn’t consider the unintended consequences.


So how do we shift our thinking to include future scenarios? I believe there are a few modifications that would help complete the picture. My advice is to try out these different exercises and add the ones that you find work well for your team.

Exercise 1 — Ethical Heuristics

In a previous article, I detailed how we conduct ethical heuristic evaluations at The Zebra. Our sprint board always includes a copy of our evaluation template, available here. During design sprints, we simply read through the list of heuristics before we start solution sketching. This serves as a quick reminder of what we should aim for and what to avoid. After a solution has been chosen, it’s often worthwhile to circle back and conduct a quick evaluation to ensure this path is the right one for the user. Here’s an example of how the end result might look:

Example of a Quick Ethics Heuristic Evaluation

Fairness & Inclusion — Empower everyone, regardless of ability. Treat all users equitably, and prevent undesirable stereotypes and biases.

  1. How could this product treat people unfairly based on a personal characteristic they cannot change?
  2. How could this product perpetuate bias or stereotypes?
  3. Will this product work well for everyone who uses it?

Privacy & Autonomy — Protect data from misuse and give users control of their information & environment.

  1. What concerns might users have about data this product collects, stores, or uses?
  2. How much control do users have over this product and their data?

Transparency — Create systems and outputs that are clear & understandable to all users.

  1. What does the user need to know to understand this product and how decisions are being made?
  2. What might they want explained and how will you provide that information?

Respect & Accountability- Create systems that are honest and human with a focus on building trust with users, and take responsibility for how systems impact society.

  1. Is your relationship with the user one that is honest, open, and transparent?
  2. Is it the kind of interaction you would expect with another person?
  3. How can you undo harm caused by this product or fix mistakes?

Growth — Users should be empowered to become better versions of themselves

  1. How are we encouraging learning and reflection?
  2. How are we encouraging people to build new skills & capabilities?
  3. How are we encouraging them to understand and engage in new and different ways?

Exercise 2 — Evil 8’s

The Design Sprint Academy put together this article discussing Evil 8’s and how they use “reverse thinking” to alleviate the pressure to perform during solution sketching. This exercise is also useful to help shift our thinking to consider worst-case scenarios.

Some Evil 8’s from a recent brainstorming session.


  1. With energy and enthusiasm, introduce this step as a warm-up exercise before the solution generation phase.
  2. Before giving the Evil 8’s instructions, get the sprint team to review the Long-term Goal, Sprint Questions, the user pain points, and the target that they voted on during the user journey map.
  3. Hand out a sheet of paper (A4 or letter size) and ask everyone to fold it into in half three times and unfold it to get 8 panels.
  4. Explain the timing of the brainwriting and that you will keep track of time during the entire exercise: (1min for the first round, 1min 30s for the second round, 2 min for the next six rounds).
  5. Explain the clockwise process for passing the pages around the table.
  6. Give everyone a clear mission for this exercise: “You’ll need to come up with the most ridiculous, silly, stupid solution to make the user problem even graver than before. Generate the worst possible ideas you can think of and stop at nothing.”
  7. Reassure everyone there are no rules, no criteria and no limits to their ideation process, except for the time boundaries. Check for questions.
  8. Remind the team to review the others’ ideas quickly before coming up with their own ideas and also, modify, flip around or remix ideas as they wish.
  9. Set the time timer and begin the rounds.
  10. Announce the end of each round and ask people to pass their paper to the person on their right.
  11. The exercise ends when the person who sketched the first of the eight panels receives their sheet of paper back.
  12. At the end of the session, collect all the pages and stick them to the wall as in an art museum.

Exercise 3 — Black Mirror Episode

Cover story exercises don’t currently exist within the design sprint framework, but they can be a fun way to get the group thinking about unintended consequences. Here’s a good example from one of our last design meetings:

Example of a Black Mirror episode page with plot outlines and quotes

Here are the instructions, taken from the original article by Joshua Mauldin.



  • Use the ethical heuristic questions to think of ways that things could go wrong.
  • Write down each idea and circle your favorites.

Episode Page

Here, we’ll communicate the big idea. Use the episode title as the main headline and the episode description to briefly summarize the plot. Add imagery to help provide a visual representation of the episode.

Plot Outline

Plot points are helpful in describing how this bad situation comes to pass. They’re the substance of the story. Consider these 4 as a starting point:

  • The characters: who’s going to be affected
  • The setup: the well-intended idea
  • The problem: how the well-intended idea goes wrong
  • The effect: how the idea going wrong affects people


  • This section is for quotes people in the episode might say. It can also be things people say about the episode after watching it.
  • Don’t be afraid to get dramatic or go over the top.


Hopefully these exercises will provide a starting point to shift your design thinking to include not only what’s right, but also defining what could go wrong. I love the way Mike Monteiro summed up this issue: “A designer is first and foremost a human being. Before you are a designer, you are a human being. Like every other human being on the planet, you are part of the social contract. By choosing to be a designer you are choosing to impact the people who come in contact with your work; you can either help or hurt them with your actions. The effect of what you put into the fabric of society should always be a key consideration in your work.”

Further Reading



Matthew Stephens

Fractional Design Leader. Co-Founder @ DeviantArt. Former VP of Design @ The Zebra.