The Bathroom of the Future: Choose Your Own Ethical Dilemma
The above is the most common ending to my design theory choose-your-own-adventure book, “The Bathroom of the Future.” If there is one thing our latest readings for Theory of Interaction Design emphasized this past week, it is that the path of the ethical designer is not a clear or easy one, especially if you work within a larger institution. To illustrate a few of the moral dilemmas that may arise working in the design world, in my story readers start off with the fairly innocuous brief to create “the bathroom of the future.” From there, multiple futures spin off based on the reader’s choices, some ending in firings, some ending in slightly better worlds, and others leading to global disaster.
If you care to read the story relatively spoiler-free, check it out now. The essay below is an unapologetic spoiler fest.
Fireable Offences and Ethical Stands
Only two of the storylines in “The Bathroom of the Future” end in the reader’s firing. The first is a no-brainer. After being handed the brief, the reader gets the choice to either conduct research with real users or just futz about googling a bit before coming up with her own design. If the reader chooses not to conduct co-design sessions with real users, she gets fired for her lack of rigor and hubris. This storyline is meant to reflect the best practices we have learned at AC4D as well as the exhortations from several of the authors we investigated these past couple weeks. George Aye, and Richard Anderson (among many others) all evangelize about the virtues of design research (and co-design activities in particular) as a check on the outsized power of designers. As in all good morality plays, violating this tenet of design ethics leads to woe for the reader/protagonist. (Also like morality plays, this storyline does not reflect reality. In my own conversations with other designers working in a variety of different companies, I’ve learned that quite a few design teams do not ever actually conduct design research. In fact, many are forbidden to do research with real users because their bosses do not want to pay for those hours. It seems odd that something that is so drilled into AC4D students as a best practice is still a contentious subject in the larger world.)
The reader’s other opportunity to be fired and her opportunities to quit arise when the business she is working for begins to take a stance that the reader perceives to be unethical. Be it creating mirrors that tell their owners that they are ugly in order to sell beauty products or medicine cabinets that share data with prescription drug companies so that those companies can upsell name-brand medications, the bathroom of the future the reader creates could be a nightmare.
For instance, if the reader goes down the path of recommending the client build an interactive “beautification mirror,” there are so many negative possibilities. The mirror that suggests a new beauty product you could buy could also trigger the beauty company to send a sample to your door. Though this could be perceived as a convenient service, it is a reminder that convenience is not the highest good. In the short-term, the “beautification mirror” is taking advantage of people’s desire to be perceived as desirable and reinforcing their insecurities. In the long run, those convenient-seeming samples will just end up in landfills. The designers of the mirror, the sample packets, and all the systems in between are culpable for creating artifacts that are not sustainable over their whole life cycles (For more on a designer’s obligation to keep an eye on the downstream effects of her creativity, check out Richard Buchanan’s writing on Design Ethics).
The mirror could be pernicious in more subtle ways as well. What if, like so many apps today, the mirror automatically adjusted your appearance every time you looked in it to make you appear more conventionally attractive? What if the mirror let you easily share these more attractive pictures of yourself on social media? What if the whole process were gamified so that the people who shared the most were rewarded? For the mirror manufacturers, this would be a wonderful form of viral marketing, but for their users and society at large, this has all sorts of negative repercussions. Jiayang Fan of The New Yorker wrote a wonderful feature piece about this called, “China’s Selfie Obsession.” Though the article focuses on the effects selfie beautification apps have had in China (including a significant uptick in elective cosmetic surgery and young people spending hours of their day using apps to photoshop themselves and their friends before posting selfies to social media), those phenomena are certainly not limited to China. People all around the world contribute to social media and manage their appearances on social media in part out of a fear of missing out (FOMO) on the social benefits of participating in the selfie culture. And that is a deliberate result of decisions by design teams at Facebook, Meitu, and other tech giants. Fan’s article, along with essays by Lis Hubert and Nicholas Carr, among others, are compelling pieces of evidence that (some) designers are the new drug pushers, even if they use people’s existing neurocircuitry rather than pills to drive growth.
So, Is Manipulation Always Bad?
No! The other main storyline in “The Bathroom of the Future” focuses on the possibilities of a smart medicine cabinet. Could such a device be used to get users to buy more expensive prescription drugs? Yes. Could it violate people’s privacy by revealing to third parties what drugs individuals are taking? Sure. But a smart medicine cabinet could also help people to take their medications correctly and even incentivize their doing so by offering rewards for being med compliant. It could detect possible overdoses or signal a trusted doctor to check in if someone were to up their intake of anti-anxiety meds. It could be another line of defense (in addition to doctors and pharmacists) against negative drug interactions. In any number of ways, such a medicine cabinet could be useful. So how could a designer steer her company towards those more positive uses of a smart medicine cabinet?
Roger Martin would argue (and I would agree) that part of a designer’s job is designing one’s own efforts to convince one’s stakeholders to go along with your (hopefully benevolent) ideas about what products should be like. This means crafting your story to appeal to the specific groups of stakeholders you need to be advocates for your vision. In other (less euphemistic) words, you need to manipulate them, but toward positive ends. To paraphrase Jon Kolko, all design is manipulation at some level. If you’re going to try to design to benefit the vulnerable, you have an obligation to be really good at driving people toward a shared vision of a better world, i.e. manipulating for social good. Activism, for designers, does not always have to look like marches in the streets. It can be a really great deck, or a well-facilitated co-design session that builds understanding between different stakeholders. It can be educating up-and-comers in a social justice niche about past and ongoing efforts in that space.
Both Digression and Not
This subject of manipulation for public good always reminds me of the movie Selma, in which we get an inside view of the fight for voting rights. In one scene, MLK asks a young John Lewis (who has been organizing in Selma for a while) if the local Selma sheriff is a bully who will come off terribly in the press like Bull Connor did in Birmingham. MLK goes on to explain why the particular power structure of the local law enforcement agencies in Selma means that the police will only be able to block (and begin to attack) demonstrators in one particular location, which will make it easy for the press to cover what happens. This scene illustrates how activists in the civil rights movement, like activists in many movements, very deliberately designed their engagements with their antagonists in order to maximize their chances of achieving their goals (in this case, to sway the public and elected officials to support the the Voting Rights Act of 1965). All of which is to say that manipulation is strategy is design. There’s nothing inherently wrong with strategic thinking, be you a designer, activist, or both. What matters is the end goals and your ability to bring about those goals without creating negative externalities.
There are only a few endings to “The Bathroom of the Future” that are not dystopian or personal setbacks. They all involve compromise.
Many of the texts we’ve looked at in the past few weeks have presented design decisions as black and white: do the project or quit your job, work for whoever is paying you or for the subaltern. In my admittedly brief life experience, choices almost never present themselves so starkly. The best you can do is think ahead as far as possible about the outcomes of your work and let your thoughts be driven by research and work with all the people who will be affected by your efforts. After that, it comes down to your judgment, and it is your responsibility to try to bring about the future that you think is the least unjust. No one gets to start anew, tabula rasa, and build a utopia. So, instead, work within and without existing power structures. You might be so lucky, as in a few of the endings of “The Bathroom of the Future,” to create something that helps more than it hurts.