The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions
As we began to read the series of articles entitled “With the best intentions”, I found myself questioning not the motivations of the different projects and products, but where the designer’s responsibility lies. When is a designer no longer responsible for the products they create? Within this post, I examine two articles’ arguments about designer’s responsibility, then finally come to my own conclusion.
For the purposes of understand where responsibility ends, I’ve created a small chart which illustrates four phases: Research, Design, Development and Real World. Each of these phases are executed in any project or product. Below is a blank version of the chart:
A piece by Michael Hobbes, made it seem as though the effects of a product are out of the designer’s hands. Hobbes states “when you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected”. He sees the effects of a product as unpredictable and thus not the responsibility of the designers. It almost seems like he expects these unforeseen changes to happen whenever a designer improves a product. He is rightly supported in this concept that after implementation, unforeseen effects of a product begin to develop. Below are the products five other authors used as well as where the breakdowns happened in implementation, and what unexpected changes have been the negative effect of the product:
“Fortune at the bottom of the pyramid: A Mirage”, Aneel Karnani
The Breakdown: “Microcredit does not alleviate (income) poverty, but rather reduces vulnerability by smoothing consumption. A few studies have even found that microcredit has worsened poverty; poor households simply become poorer through the additional burden of debt.”
Where it occurred: “The vast majority of microcredit clients are caught in subsistence activities with no prospect of competitive advantage. The self-employed poor usually have no specialized skills and often practice multiple occupations…With low skills, little capital and no scale economies, these businesses operate in an area with low entry barriers and too much competition; they have low productivity and lead to meager earnings that cannot lift their owners out of poverty.”
The change that they couldn’t have expected: Founders of microcredit programs never expected that their recipients would not have the skills to create a more niche service or product. There was a grandiose illusion that all recipients of a microcredit would be innovative business machines. In reality, not all individuals living in poverty can lift themselves out through entrepreneurial practices.
“The High Line’s Next Balancing Act”, Laura Bliss
Product: High Line Park
The Breakdown: “We wanted to do it for the neighborhood…ultimately we failed.”
Where it occurred: Residents of the High Line community said they don’t use the park because of three things, “They didn’t feel like it was built for them; they didn’t see people who looked like them using it, and they didn’t like the park’s mulch-heavy programming.”
The change that they couldn’t have expected: The designers never expected that their park (which did include community input meetings before opening) would not have been enough to encourage the community to participate. The design team thought their efforts would have been enough for the community to feel welcome, but they ultimately fell short. The drastic gentrification their park contributed to was also an unpredicted change caused by their designs. Ultimately, the project’s effects didn’t make the community feel welcomed and pushed many members out.
“Sex doesn’t sell anymore, activism does. And don’t the big brands know it.” Alex Holder
The Product: Large corporations are “allocating their marketing budget to good causes”.
The Breakdown: Corporations are donating with the expectation of a return on their investment.
Where it occurred: Companies expect these returns both in the customer base as well as in “favors”. When corporations donate to organizations, they expect their customers to choose them in the future because of the company practices “good business”. When corporations donate in a political capacity, they expect that the candidate or political organization will keep the company’s best interest at heart.
The change that they couldn’t have expected: Corporations didn’t and don’t expect their customer to see through their thinly veiled acts of generosity, as actual acts of compensation and marketing, but individuals are beginning to see them just as that. Customers know these acts of “generosity” as acts of compensates. As companies implement ethically and morally wrong practice within their businesses, they use their corporate social responsibility initiatives to compensate for their destruction of both society and the environment.
“Everything is Fucked and I’m Pretty Sure It’s the Internet’s Fault”, Mark Manson
Product: The Internet
The breakdown: “The internet… makes it profitable to breed distrust”
Where it occurred: “The internet… was not designed to give people the information they need. It gives people the information they want.”
The change that they couldn’t have expected: Creators of the internet could not have anticipated that their invention would be used by individuals not to enlighten themselves, but to comfort themselves. Manson argues that the internet by supplying everyone with all the information of the world didn’t lead to heightened intelligence levels, but rather a distrust of information due to the overwhelming saturation of availability. This then leads to individuals only seeking out echo chambers for news and information about the world around them, which creates comfort.
“Save Africa: The commodification of (Product) Red campaign” Cindy N. Phu
Product: (Product) Red Campaign
The Breakdown: The Product (Red) campaign hasn’t “Saved Africa” contrary to its catchphrase.
Where it occurred: The AIDS/HIV epidemic is an ongoing battle in both places the Global Fund is active and inactive.
The change that they couldn’t have expected: The periphery effects of the Product (Red) campaign has lead to “many nonprofit organizations dedicated to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa have not been able to receive grants or funding through donations…because of the misconception that Africa is saved.” The organization which created the campaign did not anticipate that the campaign would actually inhibit other humanitarian aid efforts in fighting against the same issues.
In each of these examples, there always seems to be some unforeseen consequence of the product that was overlooked, forgotten or unanticipated, which then have dire or severe consequences. Hobbes would believe these unforeseen consequences as part of life. He would not place the failure or consequences of these products on the designers. Below is the chart with Hobbes’ idea of responsibility marked in the phases of design.
A product’s unforeseen effects or changes on an ecosystem to Jon Kolko’s standards’ are the responsibility of the designers themselves. Kolko writes that “we are responsible for both the positive and negative repercussions of our design decisions, and these decisions have monumental repercussions”. With this concept, Jon would argue that the fact the High Line doesn’t connect with the community it’s built within, is a fault of the designers themselves. He would argue, the fact that nonprofits working with HIV/AIDS victims within Africa cannot receive the aid they need is, in fact, the responsibility of those who decided that the donations should be generated through a well-strategized ad campaign. Finally, he would argue that the perpetuated poverty of those individuals who now carry the additional burden of credit debt, lies on the shoulders of those organizations who structured the service. Like Hobbes, below is a chart illustrating what phase of the design process Kolko believe designers are responsible for.
Kolko is right that the consequences of a product are the responsibility of the designer. Though the question then becomes, how do designers predict the outcomes their products will have on the world? Especially if it’s changing the world in “ways you couldn’t imagine”?
For me, a prediction is impossible, but how a designer reacts to the consequences of their product is changeable. Designers have a responsibility to not only the products they develop but also to observe and counter the negative effects their products have on a community. Instead of viewing a designer’s responsibility as the repercussion of the product, the designer is also responsible for continuing to iterate and listen to the people it has affected. In the chart below this phase of continued responsibility is called “Continue”. There are two tools all designers should use to help themselves take on the responsibility of countering these unforeseen consequences: Ethnographic research and iteration.
In order to counter the unpredictable side effects, a designer must first know what these effects are and how their design is perpetuating them. They can implement ethnographic research to do just that. This is a research method synonymous with just “listening to customers” (Hempel). The method involves in-person interviews executed at the place where the work is being done. The full effect of this method then allows designers to gain a more empathetic understanding of the user’s needs when they go back to designing. For our slew of failed products, ethnographic research can be used to understand what happened with the product and where it fell short on serving the needs of the users. An excellent example of this is from the High Line, which has begun conducting interviews with members of the community, asking questions about how they can better serve them now.
The second tool a designer can use is iteration. This is the process in which the repetition of a sequence of operations is taken to move towards the desired result. In design, this practice is highly emphasized. Not only is iteration encouraged in final products, but within every phase of design. To apply this concept to the failed products, we should see multiple version of the products each moving in a direction that would minimize the problems of the previous iteration.
Once designers implement ethnographic research and iteration on the negative consequences of their product, they can build better products. These designers are now equipped to find out how those most negatively impacted by the products feel and why and then design products that better address those issues. This additional step of continuing contact, feedback and iteration on a product is the real responsibility of the designers.
We cannot create things, let them manifest, then leave them behind. We have a responsibility to those who are left unsatisfied to find out what happens and figure out how to prevent that from happening to anyone else.