Design It Like Our Livelihoods Depend on It:

8 Principles for creating on-demand platforms for better work futures

By Marina Gorbis and Devin Fidler

In the early days of digital technologies we did not have user-interaction designers. Alan Cooper, one of the pioneers in the field, wrote a book lamenting this state of affairs. The book was aptly named The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. In those days, most of the software interface decisions were made by engineers, and much too often one needed to be an engineer to use their creations. Over time, interaction design emerged as a discipline with a set of rules and conventions, so ordinary people could use many of the previously forbidding tools. We now know where to put the buttons on the screen and how to optimize for usability.

Many of today’s on-demand work platforms are the beneficiaries of this body of knowledge. Their creators have mastered the discipline of interaction design and brought it to new heights… when it comes to consumer experience. Uber, Munchery, Postmates, and many apps are exquisitely designed, sometimes even addictive for users. They make previously laborious processes effortless and seamless. No hassles with paying, calling, talking. Swipe your phone with a finger and voila: your ride, your meal, your handyman magically appear.

But the apps are not only platforms for consumption. They are quickly becoming our entry points for work, gateways to people’s livelihoods. In this sense, whether or not platform creators realize it, they are engaging in another kind of design, socioeconomic design, the design of systems that people will rely on to structure their work, earnings, daily schedules. And here we find ourselves in the same phase as interaction design was decades ago — the inmates are running the asylum. The stakes, however, are much higher; instead of just convenience, we are talking about people’s livelihoods. Whether and when Uber turns on surge pricing determines not only how much money Uber drivers can make but also whether they decide to spend time with friends or work on weekends. And on a city, surge-pricing decisions may impact levels of congestion in neighborhoods during the day.

Herein lies the urgent need to develop on-demand platform design as a discipline, and a discipline that brings into it not only the best of technological expertise but also the best thinking from disciplines such as economics, political science, governance, and others. If we don’t do this, we de facto cede many key social choices about how we work, what is fair compensation, who owns our work products, data, and reputations to platform creators who are likely flying blind. We embed values into our technologies, and today such values are reflections of Silicon Valley’s techno-centric ethos and funding models.

The design of “Positive Platforms” — platforms that not only maximize profits for their owners but also provide dignified and sustainable livelihoods for those who work on them, plus enrich society as a whole — is one of the most urgent tasks we are facing today.

Platform design choices should arise from understanding the experiences of people interacting with them, including consumers AND platform workers. This is exactly how the discipline of interaction design emerged — by studying people’s experiences with digital tools. To design Positive Platforms we need to gain understanding of actual experiences of people using them to make a living or to supplement their incomes. This is why last year we at the Institute for the Future engaged in ethnographic research involving people who are working on platforms in different locations across the United States — San Francisco, New York, Miami, Chicago, and elsewhere. We wanted to understand the variety of their perspectives and immerse ourselves in their vocabulary. Study participants were recruited with two criteria in mind: the degree of engagement or time spent on platforms (from passively renting to working full-time) and degree of skill required (from Uber drivers to those working on HourlyNerd).

Based on this research, we’ve begun to identify some principles that could guide Positive Platforms design:

1. Earnings maximization. 
We should design to optimize opportunities for those working on the platform to increase their income streams. Connections between design choices and earnings are not yet fully understood. Research has suggested, for instance, that for some types of work people do not do as well financially when the platforms set minimum wages as compared to when workers can set their own wages. Research by Arun Sundararajan and others, as well as our own observations, suggest that platforms that allow workers to organize their own small enterprises, rather than those in which workers merely serve the needs of the platform, tend to generate higher levels of incomes for platform workers. AirBnB’s design and photography services that help property owners make their listings more attractive is one example of a platform helping people maximize earnings, resulting in higher profits for AirBnB as well as for individual property owners.

2. Stability and predictability. 
We are in a phase of prototyping and experimentation in platform design, a practice that is key to Silicon Valley’s style of innovation. But in the case of platforms this innovation has a direct impact on people’s livelihoods. Imagine if every month you came to work and your salary were different; this is exactly what many on-demand workers experience today. Participants in our study, for instance, described shifting pay structures with only a few days’ or no prior notice. While experimentation may be the necessary phase in platforms evolution, it is important to think about the human costs of such experimentation and build mechanisms for minimizing or compensating workers for ensuing volatility.

3. Transparency. 
We need transparency at two levels: at the level of the platform algorithm itself (so that workers understand how to increase their earnings) and at the level of archived data (so that those working on platforms understand how their personal data is being used). Many people we interviewed reported how difficult it was to figure out how to maximize their earnings on platforms due to the general opaqueness of the algorithms powering them. Workers may consequently have trouble calculating out their actual hourly wages or whether it is worthwhile for them to take on certain tasks.

4. Portability of products and reputations. 
People working on platforms should be able to own the products of their work and their reputation histories, and carry them from platform to platform. Platform reputations are often directly tied to earnings as well as opportunities for various types of work. This is how one research participant describes the experience of “losing” a reputation as well as the accompanying confusion when a platform was acquired by another company: “All of my portfolio links are broken now, and I don’t think people can find me anymore.”

5. Upskilling. 
While traditional career ladders may not be relevant in the world of on-demand work, people still look for opportunities to increase their levels of skill and expertise. The best platforms already show those who work on them pathways for learning a particular skill and connect people to resources for advancement. Upwork, for example, not only provides forums for people to mentor and provide support for each other but also links them to free and paid courses where they can acquire desired skills.

6. Social Connectedness. 
Many of today’s workers are creating communities outside of the platforms where they work to exchange tips and connect with each other. Reddit, Facebook, Google Groups, and other social media sites are becoming de facto places for this. As one person we interviewed said, “I think it’s important for me to build a relationship with the people that I work with.” Mechanical Turk workers have come together on a series of forums to not only create a sense of cohesion but also to advocate for their rights. Platform designers can make this easier by enabling and fostering such communities.

7. Bias Elimination. 
Networks are at the core of what makes platforms work. Unfortunately, networks can be exclusionary (due to clustering of people with like minds and backgrounds) and polarizing (because more connected nodes tend to draw even more connections). In formal organizations, decades of labor struggles and court rulings established some basic rules and principles for non-discriminatory hiring, promotion, and so forth. We need to evolve such rules and principles in platform environments. In fact, because of vast amounts of data platforms accumulate, they may be in a good position to integrate mechanisms for surfacing bias as well as eliminating it. Models for this come from some recent startups such as Degreed which can match people to job opportunities independent of their degrees or demographic characteristics, or Unitive, which has developed software that helps spot unconscious bias in job descriptions language.

8. Feedback mechanisms. 
It is hard to negotiate with algorithms, and most platforms do not have HR departments for handling everyday issues workers encounter, from late payment to unfair reviews. Platforms need to establish feedback mechanisms and equivalents of customer support services for those working on them. “If I were starting an Internet company or designing an app for something,” one of our respondents commented, “I would say that we must have phone customer service 24/7.” As platforms come to dominate more sectors of the economy, customers and workers alike will come to expect effective means for providing feedback.

These are just some of the early principles we’ve been able to distill for Positive Platform design. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that platform design by itself will not ensure sustainable livelihoods. It is just one of the levers, along with governance, ownership, funding, and regulatory mechanisms. The platform infrastructure sits within a larger ecosystem of economic, social, and regulatory institutions and frameworks. And ownership, regulatory mechanisms, and funding choices are often embedded into technology design choices. This is exactly why we need to focus on platform design and make it a part of the larger conversation about the future of work. Otherwise we will lose the opportunity to leverage the affordances of this technology to build a strong and sustainable collective infrastructure on which to build our collective futures. We need good roads to make our economy work. We need Positive Platforms to enable better work futures.

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