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Demystifying Authority: Don’t design like Apple

Yuri Zaitsev
Jan 9, 2020 · 4 min read

Here is the picture: A little while ago, a bank in one of the smaller African countries wanted to upgrade. They serve a lot of the villages in the country, but they aren’t the biggest bank. They don’t really do business outside of the country, but they would like to. All of the business is done by phone or in-person, where people would travel many hours just to cash a check. In one case a person had to walk 3 hours from their village to deposit a $10.00 check and then trek back. What to do?

I had a chance to help them out.

The first obvious answer seems to be to make an app. Chase, Wells Fargo, all banks have them. This is the exact problem that mobile technology and the internet was made to solve. Think of the UI.

But that is thinking like Apple. I think they should do something else.

Here is what I mean: A lot of people look up to Apple (Facebook, Google, Netflix, they are all part of it) for it’s design and technological prowess. The thing is, Apple can do what it does because it is a super corporation in a wealthy country that has a capitalist, democratic political system. Apple is the authority. Of course people will use whatever Apple gives them.

This bank is not a super power, nor is it in a country that has a capitalist, democratic political system. Most people aren’t Apple.

Let’s stop trying to design like them.

An important question is then: What are we? According to a really smart writer named Ronald Heifetz, we are people without authority. We don’t have the same luxuries that the former Chief Design Officer at Apple, Jony Ive, can afford and have to go by a different playbook. We don’t start from status and the system isn’t in our favor. Our starting point is from the margin of the system and centers around engaging with people who aren’t paying attention to our work. Fortunately for us, we have a great history to learn from.

I like the suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton.

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Anthony (right) and Stanton (left) (image credit: Library of Congress)

Designing Without Authority Playbook:

Step 1: Build an informal network from which to stand. Both Anthony and Stanton started off with some history for doing social good as vocal abolitionists. After they met each other, for the next decade, they formed leagues, associations, and councils dedicated for women’s rights. They created a place for themselves in post-Civil War America that was entirely theirs.

Step 2: Understand what boundaries you are trying to cross where you have little authority. Sometimes these are cultural boundaries, political, or economic. Anthony and Stanton were trying to change an institution that was completely dominated by white men since its inception. The two of them had just lived through a war which resulted in black men only just being considered as voters. And women? No.

This was a giant, complex, boundary with deep seated history. On one side Anthony and Stanton were champions, but to create change they needed to go to the other side where they had no power whatsoever.

Step 3: Learn about the viewpoints and struggles from the other side of the boundary and incorporate them into your point of view. Anthony and Stanton were very clever with how they crossed the boundary. Sure, they placed themselves alongside the National Labor Union and the temperance movement and became extremely politically aware, which was pivotal. But they did something even better. Voting as an institution was created by the Founding Fathers after they lead a revolt against the British Empire. So what did Anthony and Stanton do about 100 years later? They spoke to the Declaration of Independence and developed a tone of defiance, toughness, and defense against domination. They even started a newspaper called The Revolution. That’s brilliant.

Step 4: Start with a small experiment which can powerfully articulate your point of view. Anthony’s tactic was to go to places where elections were being held and to vote while urging other women to as well. She was arrested in Rochester, NY for it. This wasn’t a bad thing because the trial United States v. Susan B. Anthony gave her a platform to deliver some of her most famous speeches, and was able to gain national attention.

Warning: You will tend to make people face harsh realities and truths and may begin to break some rationalizations. Not only will the substance of your point of view be questioned, but so will your right to bring it up.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that everyone needs to get arrested and appear before the Supreme Court. You can just as easily: Run an unauthorized experiment and announce the results, speak up at a meeting, offer a small yet provoking message to a group, or be the first to respond to another’s crisis.

Step 5: Finally, keep the trust of your new community. Anthony and Stanton began parades and picketing, inspiring more people to take over their cause. They traveled to Europe to start the most influential organization yet: The International Council of Women. Anthony began representing women to President Cleveland in the White House, Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, and Empress Augusta Victoria at her palace in Germany. While their early organizations completed their goals, the ICW exists today at the United Nations.

You become responsible for the ones you raise as you gain more presence and trust.

Getsalt

Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

Yuri Zaitsev

Written by

Is an ethnographer and designer who studies how people hold onto a quickly spinning world.

Getsalt

Getsalt

Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

Yuri Zaitsev

Written by

Is an ethnographer and designer who studies how people hold onto a quickly spinning world.

Getsalt

Getsalt

Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

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