Editor’s note: Samvith Srinivas is a speaker at the 2018 IA Summit this week in Chicago, Illinois. This article is based on his talk. There is still time to register and save with discount code uxbooth.
The cumulative effect of digital products created today have unintended consequences around the world. In South Korea, the government has set up internet addiction rehab centers, India reportedly has the highest number of selfie deaths in the world, and, in 2015, 3,477 people died due to distractions from handheld devices in the US alone. Research shows that our cell phones are distracting us in more ways than one.
Notifications on cell phones negatively affect task performance on complex tasks. The mere presence of a cell phone is shown to distract from task performance. These are the kind of tasks (e.g., create a wireframe, write an email) that most people do as part of our daily lives. These distractions are having negative effects on our health and happiness. In order to make up for time lost due to distractions, we work faster, which leads to higher levels of stress and frustration. Distractions lead to mind wandering, which has shown to make us unhappy. If we are separated from our phones, and they ring, it leads to higher blood pressure, higher heart rate, and increased self-reported measures of anxiety and frustration.
Technology is having negative consequences on humanity. As a collective, our actions as designers are often hurting our users and not helping them. This outcome is antithetical to what we intend for our users.
How and why did we arrive at such an outcome?
Because of unconscious and–in some troubling instances–conscious design decisions. Insiders in the tech industry like Tristan Harris, Joe Edleman, and others have talked about the conscious design decisions made by the big tech companies and app creators. They attribute these decisions to pressures of the attention economy to capture and hold people’s attention. They have pointed to “technology hijacks” that are intended to hijack user’s minds. An example of such a hijack is an instant interruption. Instant interruption is the decision to default an app to instantly notify a user about an email or social media post.
In an effort for society to fight back against this troubling trend by big tech companies, Tristan and his team have launched HumaneTech.com. They propose a strategy that includes action on four main fronts:
- Inspire big tech companies to create humane designs,
- Apply political pressure,
- Create a cultural awakening, and
- Engage employees.
These are four relevant and necessary areas that need to be addressed. I strongly encourage you to learn more about their efforts so you are – at least – well informed.
Today, I want to focus in on what you can do as a designer. An effort that will fall in the “engage employees” stream of work as described by Tristan and team.
As a designer, creator, maker of things what can you do to ensure that you are building products that are both successful and responsible?
Use this strategy to empower yourself to build products that are both successful and responsible. At its highest level, the strategy has three main components.
Find your individual purpose
What are the values and principles that are most important to you? What do you want your personal and professional legacy to be? What are the things that give you the feeling of power and purpose?
Research by Dacher Keltner and colleagues suggests that individuals gain power by serving the greater good. This is where we must start as designers.
What is your purpose? By understanding your purpose, you can evaluate your actions to see if they align with your purpose. Which leads us to the next component of the strategy.
Align your purpose with that of company’s and product’s purpose
Once you have found your individual purpose, you must then align your purpose with that of the company you work for and/or product you are designing.
What is the mission of the company you work for? What is the purpose of your product?
Ensure that the purpose of your product aligns with the purpose or mission of your company. It is not uncommon for a company to have a mission. Here are some examples for you to consider.
“Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” – Patagonia
“Our mission is to reconnect people through transportation and bring communities together.” – Lyft
“….you can belong anywhere. That is the idea at the core of our company: belonging.” – AirBnB
Evaluate the company that you work for and ensure that the actions of you and your team align with its mission.
Continuously evaluate and evangelize
While we may do the hard work of discovering our individual purpose and aligning with the purpose of the product or company we work for. The final component of ethical design is to continuously evaluate whether your product designs are conforming to your purpose and the purpose of your product and company. If it’s not, then you will need to identify the right stakeholders and evangelize your message. If your purpose is well founded, then your efforts to evangelize will be more effective.
The three main components identified above are to be pursued as a complement to the design research that one would normally perform as part of a typical design process.
As you pursue your goal to build successful and responsible products, you may choose to leverage this strategy or build upon it or create your own. Whatever you choose to do, the one thing I ask of you is to know that the power lies in you.
Know that we, as a design community, we have the power and influence to build ethical products. Know that we do not have to choose between successful or responsible products–we can build products that are both successful and responsible. Embrace this message so when we look back 20, 30 years from now, we can say that ours was the community that built products for humanity, that lived up to our aspirations.