The best and worst time to be a designer is now

In 2014 I was at a design and technology conference in Seattle. I was pregnant with my second child, taking every bathroom break between talks, and as the lights dimmed I hurried back into the crowded auditorium, squeezing my awkward bump into a narrow plastic chair to hear a talk by Mike Montiero of Mule Design titled “How Designers Destroyed the World.”

To my complete surprise, Mike opened the talk by calling out my name. “Is Nicole Champagne in the audience?” he said. “Please stand up, Nicole.” I slowly pried myself out of my seat, confused. Was I in trouble? “Nicole is a designer,” he said. He went on to call the names of a few other designers out of the audience. When he asked us to take our seats, he continued by offering to us designers that we should be proud of our profession… and that we destroyed the world.

The rest of his talk went on to describe the ways in which how a thing is designed can inadvertently cause harm, or at best be of little value to society, and how designers have a responsibility to make sure what they put out into the world does no harm. He gave examples of software that had unintended devastating consequences for some of its users. “The monsters we unleash will be named after us,” he said.

A profession that can have real impact

Most designers choose the profession because they enjoy making things, and even better when those things solve problems and make people’s lives better. The act of creation is thrilling and especially so when people actually use and engage with your work. A cleverly designed experience can bring joy and delight just by virtue of its cleverness. But don’t mistake cleverness for being good design. Most designers take for granted that dark patterns are necessary to be competitive and that’s how the game is played. Dark patterns are certainly well designed, and undeniably clever, but most can agree are not something we should employ in our products if we are honestly trying to improve people’s lives.

What if users don’t understand what they need and need to be “tricked” into doing what’s best for them? Henry Ford famously said if he asked people what they wanted they would have said a faster horse. Designers know that you can’t always design what people want because what they want is mired in their own bias and preconceived notions about what is possible. It’s up to the designer to look at the problem and craft a solution that no one has thought of. Sometimes that means tricking people into trusting you to guide them to the solution. But doesn’t this thinking lead us down a murky ethical path? Who gets to decide was is and isn’t good for the user? Shouldn’t the answer always be the user?

Many designers have read Nir Eyal’s book “Hooked” which describes ways to use human pshychology to elicit habit forming products. In my own work I have employed “Hooked” techniques to get users into the habit of using an app or website. But I justified it as helping users help themselves. I was trying to make the app addictive, yes, but for it was for the user’s own good. I never tried to get anyone to do anything that wasn’t in their own best interest. But is it for me to decide what’s good for the user?

Now, I will be the first to admit that I have not always considered all the possible outcomes of the software I design. I too have left that concern to the product managers, or the client. But lately, there has been a growing concern among designers that in fact, it is our responsibility to think of the consequences of our designs. There is a lot of unhelpful, or worse, hurtful software out in the world that continues to be profitable for its makers, so there is little business incentive to seek out the hidden pitfalls. It is up to us, the people who design the things, to consider the whole impact of what we create.

With great power comes great responsibility

Everything designed by a human is as beautiful and as flawed as that human. We all carry biases and unconscious ideas into the products we create. Facebook was famous for championing the motto “Move fast and break things”–a philosophy that was intended to keep its designers agile and responsive to a rapidly changing and growing audience. But when you become a social network serving over one billion people globally, moving fast and breaking things means people can actually get hurt. Take the example of the Google Photos app which automatically tagged an African American man and his friend as “gorillas” with image recognition software. Did the creators of Google Photos think African American people should be categorized as gorillas? Of course not, but they designed an algorithm that didn’t fully consider what could happen if the image was tagged wrong, or at least, didn’t think it would be harmful when it did.

I don’t always see my own blind spots. We as designers know how hard it is to anticipate every use case for our software. That’s why it’s called a blind spot, and that’s why we test products. The most important thing we do is to look for the blind spots. I don’t have all the answers about how to do this, but I do have a responsibility to ask the question. My life is too short to spend one day creating something that doesn’t positively impact my fellow humans.

“We need to fear the consequences of our work, more than we love the cleverness of our work.”

Mike Montiero’s talk was a call to action. A plea to designers to stop hiding behind the excuses that it’s business that determines what gets made, that evil profiteers are why our technological world is so wrought with dark patterns and misappropriated tools. Anything can be a weapon when used with ill intent, they might argue. But as designers we have a responsibility to think about the implications of our work, and ask ourselves how the tools could impact real people for good or for ill. “We are not pixel pushers, we are gatekeepers,” Mike said in his talk, “What goes to the web, goes through you.”

In a recent article, web designer, speaker and author Jeffrey Zeldman wrote “And in life, as well as design, we must do a better job of asking ourselves what we are not seeing — what struggles the people we meet may be hiding from us…” So how do we prevent the unintended harm that our creations can unleash? How do we shine a light into our own blind spots and illuminate the pitfalls? I believe the first step is just to know that we have blind spots, and to constantly ask ourselves how they could cause unintended harm if unleashed into the world.

The best and worst time

I don’t expect this shift will be easy. It is a huge responsibility without any roadmaps but it also had great potential. What if we could make technology that enhances the best of humanity, rather than the worst? What if we could make tools that elevate human experience? Mostly we just have to ask the questions, explore the dark corners of our creations and embrace that the role of software designer has changed, for better or for worse, to social designer. Designers make the internet, and the internet is where people are increasingly living their lives. Let’s not forget there are real people living in the world we’re creating.

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