Product Design & The Asshole Contingency
Linnéa Strid

Designers definitely shouldn’t ignore how assholes might use their product. However, designers aren’t the best qualified people for considering how an bad people might use a product, nor should they focus on it when prototyping.

Consider the handgun. What purposes does it serve? Its completely impractical for hunting. It was specifically and intentionally designed to kill people. Still, its fair to say it was made with good intentions. It was a new competitive edge. A versatile weapon to stop the bad guys.

Gun owners and card-carrying NRA members will tell you that the primary purpose of guns is to ensure civility. They are a sort of prototype for mutually-assured-destruction. The point of proliferating and allowing and encouraging access to them is to improve safety.

Handguns have come a long way. They have evolved to a point where really the only major improvement left is laser blasters. Its reasonable and fair to say that most people who own guns are good people. Yet do handguns make the world safer? Assholes can still access them and commit atrocities. In fact, assholes are more likely to use them, and by that I mean fire them.

Now, before I offend anyone or make this politically charged, let me just say this post isn’t really about guns. So why do I bring them up? Because they’re in an uncanny zone. They were designed with pessimistic assumption about humanity. Guns and locks are the only products I can immediately think of that convey negative aspects of humanity and are still commercially successful. More importantly, these type of products have very little need for designers. They sell themselves just fine because the average gun buyer is not even subconsciously considering design. The average gun buyer is thinking about how reliable the weapon is, and how much stopping power it has. If you’re buying a lock or a gun, you’re more concerned with what you have to lose than what you have to gain. You are out to protect what is yours.

I’m not trying to archetype. I don’t think being in a survival mindset of is a bad thing. In fact, there’s no way humans would make it this far without that instinct. I think everyone thinks like this from time to time, some more than others. More to the point I don’t think anyone can be simultaneously in a survival mindset, and a creation one.

Thinking in a protective mindset is counter to the whole notion of design, which explores untapped possibilities. The creative fields (at least in the western world) stem from Renaissance Humanism. They are made possible by the luxury of not having to think about survival, and by the ability to see the best of humans instead of the worst.

Modern design has unquestionable roots in this. The entire purpose of Modern design was to make products simpler more accessible to more people. Apple did this with computers. Ford did it with automobiles.

You cannot equally consider what you have to gain and what you have to lose at the same time. You can alternate between these world views but you cannot competently think defensively and imaginatively at the same time.

That is why designers can’t and shouldn’t proactively consider how assholes will use their products. There is a time and a place designers should consider this, but its hard to know how an asshole will abuse a product beforehand. No doubt designers should think about this, and they should definitely help improve products to prevent assholes from abusing them, but the prototype stage is no place for it. If you try to make a product that prevents assholes from doing their worst, you start restricting that product’s usability prematurely. You end up making some enterprise garbage. This is simply a bad way to create a product.

**Insert some cliche quote about not being able to hit the ball if you’re thinking about all the ways you can miss**

Even airbags were added later to cars. Encryption wasn’t the first priority in computers. There are few people who have the ability to see the unintended consequence of a design beforehand. QA experts come close, but really its a field in itself. Its not the designer’s job. For now, we don’t really have the power of knowing how an asshole will abuse a product. Assholes get that power. We have to have the humility of letting them teach us.

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