I checked my phone to break the awkward mood in the section of seats where I was sitting at a meetup of strangers. Not because I was expecting an email, tweet, WhatsApp, text message, Venmo notification or Instagram like. I checked my phone because it has become a default action in society — craning the neck, scrolling fingers and, above all, averting eyes. Smartphones have become a convenient distraction from personal interaction — so I checked my phone because I am a beginner, a tech outsider in the process of learning UX Design.
This was only my second UX Design Meetup but the vibe was noticeably different than the first. While attendees at the first event were beginners eager to connect with everyone, this group felt more seasoned, like they had attended a number of UX conferences in the past. They were accustomed to events like this and were ready to power-network and position themselves to get the best connection and impress the most important people.
So as I sat in silence waiting for the program to start I reasoned that the best outcome would be that I would learn something specifically techy or startup-y from the talk and try to connect with one or two people before going home.
The event format was a casual interview of Scott Heiferman (a co-founder of Meetup) by serial entrepreneurs and podcast hosts Jeremy Levy and Andrew Weinreich. As it got underway I was expecting a high level tech discussion and insight into how to empathize with the user at a level that can yield the millions of accounts that Meetup.com boasts, and to maybe even hear a few tales of mistakes made and lessons learned.
But by the middle of the session it was clear that Scott believed that these issues, although important, are not actually guiding principles. He affirmed that the mechanism and medium matters much less that the human-centered goals and values that should drive any endeavor.
Scott broke from the interview format completely at one point, stood up and turned to the audience. “We are at a fork in the road in society, either we retreat, keep our head in the sand and watch Netflix or people are going to reach out, connect and help each other.” Yup, I was in the right room. My imposter syndrome immediately dissipated. I was reminded that I am doing the right thing, in the right place and am indeed moving in the right direction.
I have to confess, when I first considered UX Design as a field I had no idea that the community was so involved in genuinely helping others. I knew that the world is increasingly becoming integrated with tech and that in order to adapt I would take my art-based business to the next level. I also knew that I wanted to expand my creative practice and innovate digital approaches to social justice awareness. However I had only vaguely formulated a plan to somehow connect my existing documentary photography, filmmaking and overall activism to my fledgling passion for UX Design.
The first moment of realization came when I visited IDEO.ORG’s site and read “At IDEO.ORG, we believe that design can improve the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities.” It almost seemed surreal that this was not something far-fetched and my evolving personal vision was already in existence. Since then, my research and learning has reinforced the presence of this core value of the UX community and provided encouragement far beyond what I would have imagined. To be on the forefront of societal change in this capacity is overwhelmingly.
During this recent UX + Data meetup the issue of social responsibility was on everybody’s mind and was discussed during the program. Just the previous week incredible revelations of the true impact of social media came to be known and this was now the most important issue of the day. The Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal has set the stage for the UX Design community to embark on a journey that is sure to create experiences well beyond what had been previously imagined. We must be prepared.
Our Mission, Should We Choose To Accept It
Who could ever have predicted that internet could play host to so much negativity and hatred? Ridiculous YouTube comments and “bottom-half” of the internet vitriol have now manifested into something considerably more sinister. Social Media algoritms are creating digital echo chambers and fear and hatred have found more creative ways to infiltrate broader society. “Truthers” are conspiracy theorists who now use the internet to terrorize victims of mass shootings and other tragedies. Modern day keyboard cowboys are taking their act on the road and organizing in seriously frightening ways. White supremacist hate groups are now able to organize more quickly and with more reach, attracting people from other states and countries to rallies. And to now know that more and more people are being influenced by outside state forces means that there is a new reality that we must confront.
Factually, imagining life now without the internet is weird. But the hijacking and abuse of social media is even weirder. Never before in history have people been in a position to influence others and change lives from a small device that can fit into their pocket.
Of course throughout history the aggressive and fear-filled aspect of people has always found ways to create great harm. For those of us who live in a major city, there is no shortage of questionable behavior that goes on all the time around us every day. dnainfo.com was a great online publication that provided local news stories to people in NYC. It served as an invaluable resource for legislative, business and event news but notably featured stories about every crime and misdemeanor going on in your own neighborhood. I once checked dnainfo for a week and learned of at least a handful of hit and runs in my area as well as other questionable deeds. On the surface the most we have to deal with is a very populated and busy neighborhood, train stations, supermarkets, etc., but just below the surface there are countless things happening. There are reasons why there are always the sounds of police and ambulance sirens in NYC.
The internet has empowered the underworld with the ability to connect with and foster communities while remaining anonymous. Almost like the perfect super-villian causing madness and mayhem all from behind a keyboard or smartphone in a virtual location. While governments and corporations focused on hackers as the biggest threat to the Information Age it is clear that everyone was blindsided by those who have taken advantage of existing and legal technology already woven into our lives. With advances in Artificial Intelligence, wearable tech and the Internet of Things, we are experiencing an even closer relationship between human beings and technology. Because of this inevitable evolution, companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, ATT&T, Verizon as well as platforms like Meetup, Twitter, Facebook and Medium have to be vigilant against sinister misuse of their services — not just for their own financial profitability, but for the greater good of society.
As someone newly entering the field, I am constantly inspired by the UX community’s core value of working to improve lives. When Scott jumped up and said that the most important thing was to help people it was the biggest justification and a strong reminder of what has me now hooked into the world of UX Design. This responsibity can feel very daunting though, especially when everyone’s head is in permanent crane position as they walk around in a phone-daze — forsaking incidental human contact for the perceived safety of their online communities.
What I first saw as an opportunity to learn something new has evolved into something far greater in the face of the challenges that technological changes have brought forth. However the mission is clear. In order to maintain a very delicate balance those who are in the community need to look further into their own design and use of data and move critical issues of humanity to the forefront. Not just in solving day-to-day problems, but for integrating ethics and purpose into the very nature and mission of their businesses and organizations.
Human-centered technological advancement is essential as it will create great benefits in society by solving problems and helping the less fortunate. However, as recently demonstrated, UX Designers will need to consider the damaging effects of actions by those willing to cause great harm and confront worst case scenarios as no longer a distant possibility, but a very real probability.