Politics or design? with Mike Monteiro

A transcript of Episode 159 of UX Podcast. James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom talk with Mike Monteiro about politics, ethics, business culture, and how all of that is part of the fabric of design.

Mike Monteiro talking at From Business To Buttons in Stockholm, Sweden, April 2017.


James Royal-Lawson: You are listening to UX Podcast coming to you from Stockholm, Sweden. We are your hosts James Royal-Lawson..

Per Axbom: and Per Axbom

James: ..and we have listeners in 168 countries from Taiwan to Costa Rica.

Per: Awesome. Today we are bringing you our interview with the infamous Mike Monteiro who gave an immensely appreciated talk recently at for business department here at Stockholm and the interview is recorded on location right after his talk. Mike I think is known for his outspokenness and intense presence on stage where he always has audiences on the edge of their seats. He is also stubborn like it says on the mule is not in the website where he happens to be the design director and owner and we are stubborn because we want to do good work we design things that help people and we teach other people how to design those things as well and I think this sums up Mike’s philosophy very well and in systems that we all recognize how design impacts society and our everyday life.

James: A lot of people that we interact with in the design world, online, such as Twitter have become notably more politically active since the American general election including Mike himself. He started his talk here and so by asking the question do you want to talk about design or politics so sit back and get ready for a little bit of both.

Mike Monteiro: No matter what you are designing there’s politics right like what are you working on, who are you doing it for, what are they trying to get out of it, what are their motivations who are there… who’s going to benefit from this thing you are making how is that not a political decision.

Per: Yes it always is and democracy historically not very democratic really until maybe getting closer in the past 150 years I think where more people are able to actually vote?

Mike: No it’s not true in America we have less people, the government is trying to make it harder to vote that’s by design, that’s a design choice.

Per: I almost actually blown away I heard that people who have been to prison aren’t allowed to vote even after they come out?

Mike: Oh yeah felons who are not just been to prison but people who have been convicted of a felony I think this is in most states.

James: They lose it?

Mike: For the rest of their life.

James: Because I know that you care they lose it while they are in prison but when they come out?

Mike: While they are in prison and when they come out they can vote that’s in the UK. You guys are doing great by the way the whole Brexit thing.

James: The whole Brexit thing.

Mike: Good job.

James: I got reminded today on Facebook the five years ago I became Swedish which has made me a little bit calm about Brexit because it doesn’t impact me directly now.

Mike: I love how you think it’s not going to impact you in Sweden.

James: No if I wasn’t Swedish I was just British it will Impact me in a different way more quickly.

Mike: Brexit and Trump were like a shit where two turds came out.

James: We got quite a big turn on it’s way out here in Sweden as well which we got election next year.

Mike: What’s going on in Sweden?

James: The rise of the right. I suppose is a quick way of summarizing it. It’s the fascist party is now upto 25% in the polls.

Per: Yes second biggest part-

James: Second biggest part in all of Sweden

Mike: Who are voting for this people or who are supporting this people?

James: Now I’m going to go out on a limb and say my understanding is Sweden is massive. It’s a big country out it’s not as big as US but your opinion wise it’s like the fifth biggest in the whole continent land mass wise. And we got only 10 million people that live there but the bulk of those what seven million, six million-

Mike: don’t live in the city?

James: They live in the countryside they live really quite remotely.

Mike: Yes it’s the same thing in America, people have never met a Muslim they are scared of one and they are the ones who buy into Trump’s bullshit about the fear mongering and stuff like that meanwhile people who live in cities who meet Muslims every day are like what’s wrong with you people they are fine this are their friends this are co-workers they are not like some scary other thing that they’ve never actually met there only interaction with the Muslim person is the crap that they hear on fox news. They are having a rough time economically which is true that part is true and they are looking for somebody to blame because it’s much easier to blame somebody else than to blame yourself and I’m not saying that they are at fault either for their own economic situation. I’m just it’s a lot more complex than saying oh the immigrants are stealing our jobs time and time again data has shown that immigrants come into countries and create jobs. The first generation of immigrants does all the jobs that you don’t want to do and then the second generation of immigrants they are entrepreneurs I’m a second generation of immigrants and I started a company I didn’t take anybody’s job I started my own.

Per: And at the same time we are arguing that yes this people come and take our jobs all they do is live on welfares so I don’t see how those things compute it seems fine.

Mike: Robots are taking your jobs not immigrants.

Per: Probably yes.

James: I found myself more this first few since probably the autumn that I’ve been kind of wishing for Skynet to come quicker because I think it do a damp sight better job than we are doing in the aspect right now.

Mike: Right.

James: Which is a bit scary. That self-reflection of realizing I’m saying that and I’m kind I’m not really joking the same way I maybe would have done while ago it’s actually quite awful.

Per: What part of this fear of foreigners is then by design do you think?

Mike: All of it. People are generally scared of what they don’t know that’s just human nature but stoking those fears in order to win a political campaign that’s by design that on purpose. He ran the most racist campaign that I’ve ever seen in the United States. He started out like he is opening volley, the first thing he said when he decided to run for president was that all Mexicans were rapists that’s where he started and he went downhill from there. I can’t see where there is a downhill from there but he found it he managed to get worse from there, were barring people from entering the country from Arab nations unless he has business in those Arab nations by the way.

He’ll at the same time say it’s not a Muslim ban and then like he will tell the media it’s not a Muslim ban and then he will turn around to his followers and say hey Muslim ban. The media is complicit in this because they didn’t call bullshit on him he was great for ratings you’ve got a gigantic racist clown running for president it turns out people are really want to watch a gigantic racist clown on TV so they kept giving him airtime and they kept spreading his message and people ate it up.

James: The ethical side of all this for us is how we come to design the situation is designed and in your talk today you were talking about there is designer behind all this things were you talking racial profiling or exit strategies for getting immigrants out of the country someone is designing this flow, this scheme?

Mike: Right so where I turned it into like a practical design thing if you will is look at this stuff that we are spending our time on, look at the things that we are making, we’ve got people who spend their careers working for like startups or stupidity idiotic big brands never thinking about what kind of impact their work has on the world like people look at Airbnb look at the amount of evictions that Airbnb has caused around the world. I can speak specifically to San Francisco we’ve seen so many people get evicted from their homes because landlords realize that they can make a ton more money Airbnbing their apartments than having somebody in there and is this Airbnb goal no of course not I think they actually… I think they had a pretty good goal an interesting goal like there’s nothing unethical about what they wanted to do as a business you have to look at the impacts and maybe nobody could have seen that impact coming because this was such a weird new thing but once you see it happening you are responsible for doing something about it and instead like they went the other way.

They did an idiotic campaign a couple of years ago when San Francisco passed a law that they actually had to pay hotel taxes and they ran a ridiculously angry passive aggressive bullshit campaign on San Francisco bus shelters and stuff like good luck spending that money you got from us hope you can use it to keep your libraries open later. If what you are doing ends up causing harm to people especially the people who are like society’s most fragile people and you keep doing it and you double down on it like maybe you didn’t mean to be an asshole like maybe let’s be an asshole to society wasn’t part of your original business plan but once you realize that that’s what happened you got to do something about it like you have to change.

They are not and Uber is… I mean Jesus Christ I think Uber would open concentration camps if they could they are the most evil mother fuckers on the planet I think they look for evil things to do and if you look at what they are trying to do they are just trying to like couple up people who need rides with people who have cars there’s an ethical way to do that and they shamelessly choose the other way every single time, every single time, you do it once or twice you make a bad decision I could say maybe they are learning maybe they are having some growing pains but my God when you do like every other day something horrible that they do comes out. You can only give people the benefit of doubt for so long.

Per: It’s almost like it’s contagious as well because just the other day the story came out with Slice and Unroll.me selling data to Uber and I saw actually Unroll.me’s former CEO talking it’s free will people didn’t have to sign up and agree to the terms.

Mike: Yes people didn’t have to get on the trains to the camps.

James: Yeswith unroll.me that was pushed, marked as a good service this is going to help you the way it was framed and the way which is this will free your inbox of all this kind of rubbish and staff and then buried on ethically deep down was well the way we are going to make money of you all is by basically jumping in bed with Uber and selling them lots of personal data and keeping your email allegedly S3 servers unencrypted forever.

Per: I hear this counter argument all the time but people it’s their free will they have the option to agree to it or not but they are not aware it’s the same as with. They are not aware that they are…

Mike: We need to aim a little bit higher then things could have been worse. I think at this point in time like we should be aiming to do right by people not just to be able to say well my ass is covered on this. It’s their fault. It’s their fault for signing up you know that’s weak, you know that’s week they know it’s weak but if you follow the money on all this shit you end up at the venture capital culture that all of this things, this are all venture capital backed companies. They take VC money and then once you take VC money you need to grow at certain pace you need to grow exponentially every year so all of a sudden this little peer to peer hotel thing that you had going on which was working pretty well and everybody enjoyed it and you had like a company culture ethical and all that shit all of a sudden it needs to grow by like 1000% in the next year so now you can no longer make sure that all of the places being rented on your site are good.

You can no longer make sure that all of your hosts are decent people. So things slip, quality slips we did talk about quality slipping a lot but what we don’t talk about is ethics slipping. The ethics of a company like starts slipping very quickly along with the quality so all of a sudden when your business started you have like an intimate relationship with all of your hosts who were renting out their houses now you need and where you previously had maybe 100 places for rent now you need 10000 and you are not going to check up on all those people you are not going to make sure that those people are running safe places. I’ve read articles about people dying because one person in particular I read an article about somebody who died in an Airbnb rental because it was unsafe. Airbnb didn’t know that when it got listed on their site but they are also not looking.

Per: There is sort of a call to arms to designers out there that do right or get out of there if you realize that the company you are working for is not doing the right thing?

Mike: Right and if you take a look at like silicon valley’s design teams they are like 95% white boys and that’s how you end up with a design team at Uber who doesn’t think about dealing with abuse when somebody gets into a car like what does a passenger do when a driver turns out to be abusive. There’s nothing in the up about that what do you do look how long it took twitter, it’s still taking them on they still haven’t dealt with it. Twitter is still dealing with abuse and just bullshit and your site is awash with Nazis and the problem was that they never designed the system for dealing with this stuff and all of a sudden they are overrun.

James: Facebook have the same problem that they don’t take things down as quick as we think they should take them down.

Mike: Facebook is just a nest of [redacted] … can you say that on Swedish broadcast?

James: You can.

Mike: Okay great. If you take a look at the teams that built all of this staff nobody on the twitter team has ever been harassed or abused online. None of them have ever been stalked by somebody in real life, none of them had ever had to deal with that, none of them have ever had to block somebody from seeing all of their online activity because they were an angry abusive ex. They don’t think about it. I don’t think about it when I’m designing that’s why I make sure that my team is as diverse as possible so that they are bringing their experience into things and telling me about things I don’t know about. We talk about empathy all the time but empathy is kind of a bullshit word right. We don’t need empathy we need inclusion we need to include people not feel for them. If you want to feel for people give them a paycheck and include then in the decision making. How many white boys from Stanford are seating around a table right now thinking like how will women feel about this? There’s no fucking women at the table.

James: You are right. Designer as an entire thing we are already light years up in the food chain than many of the groups and so we are exclusive from the foundations of us.

Mike: Well here’s the problem so you go to your doctor right you guys got doctors you go to the doctor you expect your doctor to behave a certain way you expect your doctor to behave with a certain set of ethics, you take your car to a mechanic you expect your mechanic to behave ethically too like your mechanic is not going to cut your breaks. You mechanic is not going to let you leave with like a broken engine block and if they do or like a lawyer. Your lawyer has to behave in a certain way and if your lawyer breaks the law or your doctor breaks the law what happens if any of this professions behave an ethically what happens?

Per: Repercussions.

Mike: What are the repercussions?

James: They are liable for those-

Mike: They lose their jobs… they lose their license and they can no longer practice what they do. Now if a designer behaves unethically what happens to that designer?

James: They probably get rewarded because they’ve done what was asked of them?

Mike: You are probably right but there is nothing negative, nothing a designer who spends their career behaving unethically even if they get caught time after time there’s absolutely no repercussions from it and there is no design body like I assume you have like a legal design body here for lawyers who if a lawyer is behaving unethically they go in front of… in US you will get in front of a bar association they would say give me your license you are out of here and that’s it that person can’t be a lawyer anymore. Wouldn’t it be great if there was like an organization like that for designers where if I caught you James, if I caught you like not being ethically sound doing your design work you got called in front of the board and like James explain yourself and if you couldn’t explain yourself James get out of here you’ve lost your design license you can’t design anymore.

James: I think it sounds more and more appealing.

Per: It does actually.

Mike: We at one point we designed like posters and books and flyers and then little brochures websites the we got into e-commerce and shit like that and that was still fine but that’s what we were making and that’s what we were designing and now we are designing more and more we are designing like stuff in the social sphere stuff that deals with interpersonal relationships really complex shit. We are designing like logic boards for self-driving cars and like who’s figuring out the ethics for self-driving cars, Google actually hired an entire giant team to figure that out which is great they are thinking about it. Because when we are driving around we make those calls like the trolley story right?

Per: Yes.

Mike: What’s the trolley story for self-driving cars you got to build that into the software so they are actually working on that stuff but more this is the kind of shit that designers are doing now and you can’t, you can no longer just like grab people who aren’t concerned about the bigger picture of what they are designing and say great you are my design director because you got like good visual design test. It’s bigger than that now.

James: I think we are very rapidly going from a digital design, the tech design world, where the things we created touched relatively small number of people to a world where potentially the things we create will reach a proportion, a sizable proportion of the world’s population and that’s a massive change and responsibility.

Mike: Yes and if when I first started this career like if you made a mistake like you would have to eat a press run or something. Like oh there’s a typo on this thing I printed I got to eat that press run now if you make a mistake people die.


Per: There is both some really scary stuff in here and there is some really good stuff that Mike is saying and there is some really good insights. I do like that he is acknowledging that you don’t necessarily start out unethically you can the outcome of what you do can turn out to be unethical and then you can decide sort of how am I going to deal with that, how am I going to recognize that something has become unethical and how will I steer my company organization otherwise. He has acknowledge everybody makes mistakes and not everybody is perfect, companies are trying, the business ideas are okay and sometimes people get hurt and then what are you going to do when people get hurt?

James: And also you don’t have all information all times so you can make a decision that.. with what you know at the time feels okay then information comes to you that actually puts that in an unethical light that’s it actually a natural occurrence.

Per: The thing is you are always have to be open to learn that something is perhaps perceived as unethical by others and be able to respond to that. The thing is then that so what are we as designers doing to make sure we are responsible for the work that we are putting out because in essence we are not responsible we are not held accountable for the stuff we do. Having work at health services now for many years. I’ve been doing risk analysis at a scale I’ve never done before in my career and some of these are the risk is that people die so what do we have to do to counter that people die.

James: And reduce that risk to a level that’s acceptable.

Per: Exactly reduce that risk in our web interface. We have to add friction and this is sort of where I got into the whole adding friction thing so people have time to think about what they are doing but the thing is when people do get hurt people within the medical profession, medical practitioners, they are always held accountable but the reason for someone getting hurt could be a design issue, something that a designer didn’t think about or something that the designer did think about but didn’t have time to fix and that’s a really bad case but nobody is going to go back to see who designed this system we are going to take them to court for designing it in a way that all this people got hurt and on a scale when scaling this to include everything is becoming digital even health services so it’s becoming hugely important for designers to consider what impact will this have if thousands even millions of people are using this service.

James: I found myself more reflecting on the idea of licensing or registering of designers we’ve joked for years that people should have computer licenses I remember that but it goes back decades in all that you’ve said you should have a license before you are allowed to use a PC or whatever.

Per: And even had that sort of in Sweden.

James: Exactly it was computer license but most seriously Mike mentioned the fact that it was in law you have the bar or rather every single almost every single country has a licensing process for being able to practice law. You either have to be registered of have a minimum qualification to be allowed to use a certain title or to do a certain job. Same thing with medical licenses you can’t just go around saying you are a doctor and medical doctor. You have to have a license to practice being a medical doctor. Architects that’s a lot of the countries that’s also regulated and the thing that connects these together is there are general industries that have a high level of impact on people. If a doctor messes up their job to give a wrong… people get hurt, if your architect designs a house badly people can get hurt same goes for lawyers if you have bad legal representations then you can go to jail necessarily it’s an important part aspect of the system that people are good holding up the system. Where we in our industry we don’t have that kind of regulative body or that kind of stamp of approval me and you we haven’t been educated as designers.

Per: No exactly.

James: You could argue if we were doctors we would be unlicensed doctors so thank you everyone good bye we are out of business now, no but that’s an example of how much goes on in our industry that is very very unregulated and I kind of like the fact that self-taught people exist in our industry because it’s such a young industry and it’s so new still but the same time things make me feel more and more that when you talk about people can die if you make bad design decision Mike talks about the political implications of using things that we’ve designed unethically and the scale of which the internet and what we’ve created has grown to it’s a worldwide phenomena. Its billions of people use technology, web stuff daily now.

Per: Exactly its scale is denting because if we were designing websites in the late 90s-

James: This is not 1996 anymore.

Per: Exactly you sort of knew who you were designing for because there weren’t that many people even using the internet.

James: Yes when I was designing kind of pages on my bulletin board in 1986 there was 20000 people with modems in the UK the world was tiny. It’s not so tiny anymore but there’s aspects, there’s two sides to it we’ve got the licensing aspects for individual designers but then you’ve got the stamp of approval for the digital things that we create. You can’t buy a car that hasn’t been crash tested to oblivion and kind of thoroughly checked and approved for sale. You can’t buy kids toys in Europe well kind of a CE mark on it unless you buy them direct from China. There’s a lot of industries with regulations you can’t take medicine here that hasn’t been approved I know this when you think it’s an American medicine one there’s all different things going on but this in Europe we have a very clear self-regulations of what can be used and how it’s been tested first before coming to humans…

Per: The reason we are actually doing this risk analysis for this particular tool, web tool we are building is because there were regulations and its classified as an NMI national medical information system so there are rules applying to that and that affects the design so those sort of rules and that governing body or federation needs to happen for that stamp of approval. But how do we get there?

James: If feels it needs to be up kind of more artistic view on this like you can do staff you can release staff without that kind of CE mark it’s like you don’t need to do usability testing. You don’t need to do some kind of security analysis or even risk analysis. You can put a product out there that is potentially, like Craig Sullivan says to us in episode 157, he said if we built cars like we build website people would die and he’s completely true.

Per: It is happening and it’s small certainly happening.

James: It is happening but maybe it’s not happening enough yet. The same time we are not just talking about body count we are now talking about we’ve got a president in America now that possibly has happened because of design decisions that designers admit.

Per: Mike would argue that he most certainly has happened.

James: I’m being a bit more political in my answer now. But yes it’s that path was not a natural path it was helped because of designers.

Per: Yes and our increasing understanding of how the mind works and how habits work and how people work.

James: And the way that we are exploiting them.

Per: exactly.

James: Go out and buy yourself a donut or something and cheer yourself up. The future is not all black there is some really good things we can make a difference with this.

Per: But that’s way you’ve been saying it’s really good that we are talking about it we are becoming more aware as a young industry we are perhaps now realizing that we need this governing body for certain types of products that we produce.

James: Not just regulations but for like accessibility which is good in itself but how far we’ve come so far with legislation is like saying, well the thread on your tire has to be so many millimeters deep we at that kind of level. We are not saying this is a safe car.

Thank you very much for listening today if you are already a subscriber then please just click and add us or pull over first and click and add us. The show notes to this episode and an archive of every single show that we’ve ever made is available uxpodcast.com

Per: there are quite a few now. Remember to keep moving

James: See you on the other side.


James: Knock Knock

Per: Who’s there

James: Cash

Per: Cash who?

James: Na, I like peanuts.

Per: I love it when it takes me 2 seconds to realise what you’re saying

James: Yeah, I do too. Doesn’t make you look stupid at all.

[End of transcript]

This is a transcript of a conversation between James Royal-Lawson, Per Axbom and Mike Monteiro recorded for UX Podcast in April 2017. To hear more episodes visit uxpodcast.com or search for UX Podcast in your favourite podcast client.