Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

A graduation speech on responsible design

A photograph of the standing 2019 graduating class of the MHCI+D program
The MHCI+D graduating class of 2019.

As the world destabilizes, responsibility has been on my mind. Responsibility to our selves, to our families, to our communities, to our countries, and to our planet.

So when the outstanding 2019 cohort of Masters in Human-Computer Interaction + Design program nominated me to speak at the graduation ceremony, I couldn’t help but share my thoughts on responsibility, and their imminent roles in designing the world we live in. Below is a transcript of my speech:

Thank you Axel, thank you Michael, thank you to the graduates for asking me to speak, and thank you to your families for being here to celebrate.

When I reflect on a year of teaching and learning, I find it reassuring to remember what we’ve learned together.

  • You learned methods for understand the world as it is.
  • You learned to envision new futures.
  • You learned processes for refining those futures.
  • You learned media for creating these futures.
  • You learned ways of knowing that you’ve succeeded at all of these.

You should all leave this program feeling confident that with a bit more practice, you can envision solutions to nearly any problem using these skills.

But while reflecting on what you’ve learned can be comforting, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t make you at least a little uncomfortable. So in this last lecture of your program, instead I’m going to talk about something we couldn’t teach you this past year. And that is deciding what is right:

  • Which problems to solve.
  • Whose problems to solve.
  • Which world to create.

Learning to make these choices is hard. This is because no matter what you do, the values you have for your own life will be in tension with the values of the world that you’re designing for.

  • Will you choose a job for how it helps you or how it helps humanity?
  • Will you choose projects for how they advance your career or how they advance society?
  • Will you choose designs for the markets they serve or the people they serve?

These choices, these value-laden choices, will shape the world that all of us live in. Will you make them based on what you need or what the world needs?

And what does the world need? Here are some of the things on my mind lately:

  • A lot of people need more water.
  • A lot of places need to be less hot.
  • For many people, it needs to be safer.
  • The information in our lives needs to be truer.

Will you design a world in which everyone has the water they need, or a world in which people who already have water can get a little bit more, a little bit faster?

Will you design a world in which people who are hot can get a bit cooler, or a world in which people who are already cool can get the temperature of their home just right?

Will you design a world in which our most threatened people can find refuge, or a world in which our most comfortable people can get a bit more comfortable?

Will you design social media that amplify truth or amplify speech?

By embracing the role of a designer, you’re taking on the responsibility of making these tough choices. And with that comes the daily choice of choosing between yourself and choosing on behalf of others.

A great designer finds a way to serve themselves and others at the same time.

  • Find that solution that makes the world you want to see, but feeds you
  • Take that job at the business making the change you want to see, but pays you
  • Start that business that creates the markets the world need, but enriches you
  • And if you can’t find ways of doing these, forgive yourself until you can
  • And if that’s not enough, advocate for changes that enable you to do these things, in your jobs, in your communities, and in your countries.

And above all, be patient. You’ve all learned how hard it is to design just one thing. Recognize that learning to know what is right, and then designing what is right, will take time. You’ll learn how to advocate. You’ll learn how to navigate the job market. You’ll learn how to find opportunities. You’ll learn how to make opportunities. And once you’ve learned to do these things, you’ll be empowered to make decisions based on what you believe is right.

So on this day of celebration, I hope you’ll all reflect on these big problems facing humanity, reflect on what you believe is right, and reflect on you role you have in shaping or world. Congratulations MHCI+D class of 2019 and good luck!

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.