power tools.

Microsoft has released a card game for ethical decisions around AI. Their seven ethical principles are as stated below:


While the game itself reads mostly as a light-touch brand engagement tool, it strikes me that each of these cards represents a mechanism for wielding power. “User control” provides agency to the user. “Inclusive feedback” means many users have a voice. “Transparency” should help provide understanding.

But of course, power tools are notoriously tricky to wrangle. For every attempted use of power for good, there’s the inverse questions of use and ultimate levers: Who determines which users get to give feedback? Who decides which controls to let users have (and which to deny them access to)?

Designer George Aye developed rules for what makes design “good,” and it’s his third rule I find most interesting: Good design builds power.

Good design builds power.

Being the change-minded designer that I am, I interpreted this as a radical challenge: Can power be an abundant resource, built and shared by, for, and among citizens at large?

It’s a provocative question for designers in part because our field is presently in debate about whether designers can (or should) identify as activists. As designer Pierce Gordon reminds us: Every system is a product of design intentions, whether good, evil, or neutral.

Racist, sexist, classist, xenophobic systems have been designed over centuries of institutionalized inequality.

We don’t have to look to wicked systemic problems to see design’s power in our daily life. “Most design is manipulative,” writes Jon Kolko — the act of subtly directing people toward actions they may or may not be conscious of choosing “is interaction design 101.”

The best interaction design can be helpful, used for good, even liberating and “emancipatory,” as Pelle Ehn calls it. By recognizing the design at work in our current systems, we have more opportunities to design real solutions. And that work starts where we are.

Tonight I lead the class in a game: Good idea, bad idea. We rapid-ideated a handful of truly bad product-service design ideas on a whiteboard. (A shower toaster! Fyre Fest II!) I then showed my version of Microsoft’s principles, retooled to our conversations about power. I called this my power tools deck.

[image of power tools deck]

I then asked one half of the class to make any modifications or problem-reframes necessary to turn “Fyre Fest II” from a bad idea into a good one. I asked them to consider the power tools at play — how could they use Fyre Fest II to help give inclusive voice? What could they do to build transparency into the process? Within just a few seconds, they were describing a festival that would correct some key things that went wrong with the first (real) Fyre Fest.

The other team discussed the shower toaster, and pretty quickly got to some interesting ethical places. Namely, what do we do about a hilarious(ly bad) idea that could be used for good and could also pretty obviously be used for destruction? How do we build something ethical?

In less than 5 minutes, we resolved some power-for-ill issues with one bad idea and hit the root power dilemma of another. It was a quick, messy exercise, but it got to George Aye’s key point: Building power is one of the trickiest design challenges there is. What I was testing for was this: Yes, and — can we get started, even in 5 minutes, with a silly thought exercise, as design students?

Right where you stand. That’s where you do good work.

I think so—I hope so. I’ve appreciated the words of designer Mike Monteiro, who gives us a simple entry point for beginning to design around power and inclusion.  “The answer is so obvious as to be painful,” he writes. “Right where you stand. That’s where you do good work.”