Designing with Foresight or Hindsight
“All design is future making.” — Stuart Candy
In today’s world, speed plays a big factor in the design process. Just as in many other fields, designers work within fast pace environments and are expected to produce high quality products on a regular basis. Such environments encourage designers and other decision makers to implement a product as a form of testing it live and out in the open.
Companies like Apple and Google for years now have been launching early features and entire products without extensive testing periods. Facebook has even been boastful about their long standing mantra “move fast and break things”. In 2012, just before Facebook’s IPO, CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a controversial letter to investors: “The idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough.” For years, employees were told that the speed at which they were developing tools and features was more important than the repercussions of the products they were designing
Facebook’s mantra may seem familiar to many designers. After all, we are taught to test our products directly with our users and doing so in the real world and at scale only seems logical. Why waste time and resources to prototype and test thoroughly before a release when you can catch two birds with one stone? Well, the company’s product designers deal with unprecedented scale. Facebook’s core mission is to ‘connect people’ and the company has been extremely successful in doing so. As of writing this, the platform counts 2.27 billion monthly active users. If Facebook decides to make a change to a feature or wants to launch an entirely new product, it instantly impacts almost one third of the entire world population with the click of a button.
The immense impact of Facebook can be grasped by looking at how the company deals with censorship. Facebook’s own community guidelines require extensive content moderation. Whenever a Facebook user sees what they deem inappropriate they can flag the post to be reviewed. Facebook’s content moderators then screen the flagged content, removing those posts that fall outside of the guidelines. Every day, content moderators are exposed to the most horrendous posts and imagery imaginable. Many are haunted by the things they have seen. Some have even been diagnosed with forms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
But is there an alternative to “move fast and break things”? As it turns out, designers have been coping with various forms of unintended consequences for decades. At the heart of every thoughtful design process stands the concept of prototyping. Prototyping allows us to test our designs in a controlled and considered way before they are released to the public. In the development process this can be understood as a simulation of a product’s success or failure. There are many ways to prototype a product both in at a small and large scale.
There have been many repercussions of seemingly considered design decisions. In the 1960 industrial designers made great use of plastic, back then, a fairly new substance. It had many advantages than other widespread materials at the time and quickly became the material of choice for nearly every mass manufactured product. Unfortunately, only decades later did it become clear that plastic, while having favorable production and design oriented properties, its excessive use paired with poor degradability resulted in an unparalleled ecological disaster.
The problem was that designers at the time did not consider plastic as part of a larger system. They looked at the product in an isolated fashion, removed from how materials got sourced, manufactured and where the product was ending up after its life cycle. Hence, they did not foresee the potential ramifications of their design decisions at the time.
It became important for industrial designers to understand that the products they designed lived within complex systems and were not isolated from them. This shift was a profound one, as the design process had become much more considerate of a product’s environmental impact. Foreseeing the consequences of their decisions became part of the designers purview. Today, no industrial designer’s education is complete without studying product ecology.
Many digital product designers are facing a similar situation today. Companies like Facebook are facilitating fast pace environments where it becomes hard for designers to zoom out and situate the product they are developing as being a part of a larger system. In these circumstances, it becomes hard for designers to extrapolate weak signals that might hint at possible repercussions of their work. Yet, this act is imperative when designing with unintended consequences in mind. In addition to designing for environmental impacts, today’s designers need to be conscious of the social and ethical impacts of their products as well.
With digital products now reaching more people than ever, and becoming more widespread in their use every day, designers must ask themselves how they want to design for the world — with hindsight or with foresight.
ALBATROSS — The film:
The Cleaners — Trailer: