The Value of (Ethical) Design

Can designers drive a movement of putting people first?

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Design as a profession is tangled in a dilemma: designers tend to identify as the goodies, striving for a better world through human-centered innovation; and yet, designers often ply their craft for businesses that work (primarily) for financial gain.

One way to manage the cognitive dissonance this situation creates is to externalise it. We can argue that we are constrained by the realities of modern society — we’ve all got to eat, and to eat we’ve all got to make money, and the money we make comes from the businesses we serve.

But if we really want to effect change in the world, we’re going to have to change the conditions that lead us to compromise on principles like human-centered design.

Steve Baty performed an excellent ‘rant’ at IxDA Sydney last night about the Value of Design in a complex, dynamic world (and this piece is mainly a thought provoked by his presentation). Like many of the great talks at UX Australia 2016, it was a motivational sermon on the power of design to work for good in a world beset by bad. But he pulled back a bit toward the end, warning that imposing an ethical framework on clients and customers is dangerous.

Steve’s talk started out with a paraphrase of a well-known passage from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address:

“the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

This noble statement contrasts with the dominant measures of progress in society today. Technological advancement rockets along because it can, leading to smaller, faster, more powerful, increasingly connected things. Public policy undergoes reform in the name of efficiency, market-based freedom, and security (from the spectre of the dangerous Other). Too often the products and policies that result solve non-existent problems and make very few people — if any — happy.

In Steve’s estimation, this is because the people driving innovation in business, technology, and government tend to be sociopaths. Not in the sense that they’re out to actively hurt other people, but that they lack empathy. They just don’t care about what their products, services, or policies do to or for the people who have to deal with them.

Designers, on the other hand, care. We can be a humanising force, bringing empathy into every conversation, putting people first. Designers don’t have a monopoly on caring, but as Steve clarified in a tweet after the event, it is a core capability.

Steve hedged a bit from what I perceived as a key message — that design (and designers) can and should take a leading role in changing the world, by putting people first and ensuring that the products, services, experiences we design help people to be their best selves.

Responding to a question about how his ethical framework influences the work he does, he warned that while we can never leave our personal ethical positions at the door and be objective about our work, imposing an ethical framework on the clients we work with and the customers we work for is dangerous.

I’d like to hear more about what the dangers are there, but I was left with the feeling that it’s about compromise and the challenge of the designer’s dilemma I mentioned above.

If designers, and our partners and collaborators, are going to lead the movement for a better world, we’re going to need to take harder stands on some key issues. That includes imposing an ethical framework on the product design process.

Valuable innovation happens at the nexus of desirability, viability, and feasibility (well described in IDEO’s explanation of their approach to design thinking). Putting people first is a central tenet of human-centered design. By understanding the real challenges and frustrations people face, we can identify problems in need of solutions — this is the desirability zone. To be successful, innovative things also need to make sense from a business perspective, and be technically do-able.

Amy Lamp, Design Director at Forty, has laid out key questions to ask when trying to balance the three dimensions of design value. On the desirability side of things, those questions include “will the solution fill a need?” “Will it fit into people’s lives?” “Will it appeal to them?” and “Will they actually want it?”

All of these are crucial questions to ask when trying to determine the desirability of a new product from the user’s perspective. But they only really address the non-ethical “can we do it” concerns of a business or organisation.

But should we do it?

To truly put people first and stop compromising when it counts, we need to start asking ourselves (and our stakeholders, clients, customers…) should we do it?

“Should we do it” is a fundamentally ethical question. It goes beyond proving that a product meets a need (or a desire), a business target, and technical capacity. “Should we do it” must take into account whether a thing makes a net positive contribution to human life. (If you haven’t watched Tristan Harris’ inspiring TED Talk, you should do it right after you finish reading this piece.)

What kind of ethical framework can we apply to this question? I can think of two that fit: a Buddhist approach to reflecting on “skillful action” (will the action result in suffering for yourself or anyone else? Then don’t do it!), and a secular academic approach to professional ethics from anthropology. Leaving Buddhist practice aside — it gets very complex, and I’m no expert — I’ll focus on the anthropology (where it’s still complex, but I’ve got a lot more experience to work from).

The first “principle of professional responsibility” listed by the American Anthropological Association is “Do No Harm.” While it is meant to apply to anthropological research (and applied anthropology), it is directly applicable to design work.

Figuring out whether a project does harm is not a simple task. It requires an assessment of the net effects — the good versus the bad — and serious consideration of potential risks and unintended consequences. There is no quick formula for quantifying harm or potential harm.

From the AAA Principles explanation of Do No Harm:

Anthropologists may choose to link their research to the promotion of well-being, social critique or advocacy. As with all anthropological work, determinations regarding what is in the best interests of others or what kinds of efforts are appropriate to increase well-being are value- laden and should reflect sustained discussion with others concerned. Anthropological work must similarly reflect deliberate and thoughtful consideration of potential unintended consequences and long-term impacts on individuals, communities, identities, tangible intangible heritage and environments.

For anthropologists, Do No Harm requires serious thought and calculation, especially when the intention in the project is to Do Some Good.

Likewise, designers must analyse the implications of the things we create through the lens of Do No Harm. We need to think about the obvious and immediate harms that might result from what we design. We need to think about the less obvious, less immediate, and often unintended harms that might emerge. We need to think about these things with the people who will experience them. We need to facilitate this kind of thinking with both the intended users and the business stakeholders of every project to answer the fundamental ethical question in design: “should we do this.”

We may not always personally agree with the final determination of whether a thing should be done. But if we’re going to shape the future and make it one in which we provide enough for those who have too little, we have got to make sure that the ethical discussions happen.

Editorial Note

I wrote this on the way home from an IxDA Sydney meetup and posted it on Medium. It was also reposted by theUXBlog.

If you made it this far down the page, thanks for reading.

Like with every post on this blog, consider this an invitation to join in thinking together, and maybe doing together. Why not get in touch with me on the Get in touch on the Fediverse to share your thoughts?

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All posts on this blog are by Scott Matter and licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0