Why You Love Design from Trust

Jerry Michalski

You just don’t know it yet

Any idiot can edit the Wikipedia — yet it works.

Netflix’s employee policy on things like expenses and vacations is: Act in Netflix’s Best Interests. No big manuals or rulesets.

Microloans go to people with no collateral, who should be terrible credit risks. Yet their default rates are lower than conventional loans.

These are all examples of Design from Trust. (Not for; from.) You may notice some things they have in common:

  • They begin with an assumption that most people have good intent.
    (Most, not all.)
  • They initially feel counterintuitive, even risky.
  • They are social: they rely on human relationships.
  • They’re appealing: once you wrap your head around them, you want more.

I’m particularly fascinated by that second one: how uncomfortable systems designed from trust seem to make us. That discomfort shows how far we are down the rabbit hole of mistrust: When we see systems designed from a basis of trust, we freak out a bit.

You see, we’ve internalized the assumption that humans can’t be trusted, and therefore that we all need to be constrained and coerced into doing the right thing, pretty much all the time.

The less obvious insight is that we tend to see risk and vulnerability as negatives, things to design out of systems. In fact, well-designed risks wake up that latent part of our humanity that wants to connect, that wants to help, that wants to do the right thing.

Organizations that Design from Trust — even if they don’t call it that — know this. Wikipedia makes itself vulnerable to vandals (and believe me, they’ve seen vandals!) by letting anyone come in and edit, because that’s also the best way to discover great collaborators.

Netflix makes itself vulnerable to its employees because everyone harmonizing around a principle is more effective and cheaper than everyone learning and remembering specific rules, then policing the complicated system. The principle embodies intention: The company’s act of vulnerability makes employees feel that Netflix trusts them, which inspires reciprocal trust.

Early microfinance institutions made themselves vulnerable to their borrowers because they were lending to circles of women, and relying on social pressure and mutual aid to get the loans paid back. (As microfinance attracted the big bucks, it got messier. But that’s a different post.)

Mistrust is pretty toxic.

Mistrust creates scarcity

Because we don’t trust that teachers will pick appropriate teaching materials, we limit the texts they can use to a few, approved texts — and open up nightmarish dynamics around textbooks. Political agendas exert their pressures, and the few books that make it through are hardly exciting. We also fear inappropriate materials getting in children’s hands, so we limit access to interesting materials.

Because we don’t trust that a teacher without a PhD will be able to teach, we require teachers to have PhDs — and of course, don’t pay them much. Thus we create a scarcity of teachers.

Mistrust costs more

The part I like of Dan Ariely’s recent TEDx talk, Designing for Trust (yes, for) is his story about a store that required he visit three people to complete the purchase of a $12 pen, because the store owner didn’t trust his employees.

Think of all the costs associated with the architectures of mistrust: locks, fences, other barriers, surveillance cameras, archiving the surveillance footage, prosecuting violators….

Remember what a pain in the ass copy-protected software was in the days of floppy disks? The industry found its way to other business models, including making profits while nurturing open source software, which is a great example of Design from Trust.

More vividly, compare the costs of running a full-on ad campaign for an uninspired product or service with the contagious velocity of free personal recommendations for something that really moves or helps people. The Stalker Economy is expensive.

Mistrust destroys genius

This is the toxic trait we forget. Rigid job titles and management hierarchies do a great job of killing off genius. “Stay in your lane” replaces cross-functional brainstorming. Instead of finding their way to where their skills are best applied, employees have to make do where they are assigned.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Our compulsory education system is an embarrassingly rich example of all these assertions about mistrust, and more, as I describe in this TEDx talk (as well as this follow-on talk).

Humans are so adaptable!

We’ve grown so accustomed to institutions designed from mistrust that we don’t notice their effects on our lives. We miss “community,” but we’ve done a great job of stamping out the interdependencies that create community.

Worse, we have no idea what we’re missing if we designed from trust: most of us think our institutions are designed as well as they could possibly be, otherwise they’d be changed, right?

Sadly, that’s not right. It serves too many parties to have dysfunctional institutions. Textbook publisher’s shareholders aren’t after affordable textbooks; the same goes for pharmaceutical companies’ shareholders and affordable medicines. CoreCivic (the fresh new name for Corrections Corporation of America, the incarceration leaders) doesn’t want us to end the war on drugs or the war on immigrants at our border.

Instead, to Design from Trust, take the examples I started with in this piece — Wikipedia, Netflix’s policy, microfinance and open source software — as examples of what’s possible on a much larger scale. I’ll describe others in future posts. There are many.

How does Design Thinking fit?

Design from Trust is different from Design Thinking, which has done a fine job of elevating the role of design and catalyzing innovation around the world. I love DT’s roots in deep observation, empathy and prototyping. But Design Thinking doesn’t use trust and risk as levers; worse, the ethical outcome of its process depends on its facilitators and participants applying their personal ethics to what they’re designing, a step all too often missing from business innovation.

Also, you can train a small department in Design Thinking and send them off to create new things. That works. You can then integrate the products and services they invent into your normal business.

Trust is more complicated. When you bring trust into the picture, the process becomes reflexive, by which I mean it reflects back on the organization, exposing other places where trust is broken, which I would reframe as opportunities to reestablish trust.

It’s quite a challenge for a company to be fully trustworthy on all fronts. For example, they might source products ethically but treat their employees like interchangeable cogs in a machine, as costs to minimize rather than assets worthy of investment. They might be great for the environment but horrible to suppliers, or vice-versa.

So Design from Trust is contagious, in a good way. It causes introspection and offers paths to change for the many ways that organizations have lost the thread on trust.

So much to redesign…

The bad news I bring is that design from mistrust is ubiquitous and often goes unquestioned. Worse, we’ve normalized these systems, internalized them as acceptable and maybe even inevitable.

We take for granted crappy systems based on faulty assumptions about human nature (say, homo economicus), and we resist change because the familiar, even if dysfunctional, is less scary than the unknown.

The good news is that there is a monster opportunity to redesign nearly everything — from trust. The workplace? Check. Healthcare? Yup. Governance? You bet. Our penal system? Indeed. Advertising? Yes!

In this era where breaches of trust seem to arise daily, and where some political parties are weaponizing trust, so we no longer know whom to trust in the fog of misinformation and spin, Design from Trust might seem like a naive notion, a Quixotic quest.

I think not. In a low-trust epoch, high-trust organizations will be even more attractive than in “normal” times. Trust is a differentiator.

Also, as we wrestle with epochal problems like how to deal with human-generated climate change, how to automate work without plunging us into the Great Unemployment, and how to make better decisions together, en masse, I believe trust is the best way forward. What’s not to love about working on that?

If you’ve ever used the Wikipedia and marveled at how it works, you’ve experienced Design from Trust. You just didn’t know it yet. It may have made you a little uncomfortable, and a little happy. You want more, don’t you?

Jerry Michalski

#DesignEthics #DesignfromTrust #DesignfromMistrust #Trust #Vulnerability #Risk

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Jerry Michalski

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