Responsibility in Design


Evaluation of outcome, not product

We’ve been discussing a variety of topics in our theory course, Theory of Interaction Design + Social Entrepreneurship, taught by Richard Anderson, related to the value of social impact, the role of design in “saving the world,” the factors that drive the desire to do good, and the role of good intentions in designing products, services, and systems for social change. Throughout the texts we’ve discusses, what resonates most strongly with me is the collective responsibility of design + social innovation, and what practices we should adhere to in order to predict, shape, and address the outcomes of our products and designs.

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We tend to think of products (or designs, initiatives, inventions, etc.) as good or bad. But products themselves are merely instruments that have no intrinsic value. It’s the application of the products and the outcomes of their implementation and use that matter, and which are open for evaluation. Those outcomes always involve tradeoffs – someone (or something) benefits, and someone (or something) suffers.

A specific theme that I keep coming back to is the idea of intention vs. outcome –  not within the dichotomy of good vs. bad, but the idea that small creations or designs have the potential for massive social change, while some very big ideas never catch on. Combined with this notion is the thought that things that cause huge shifts in culture often have both positive and negative outcomes for society (depending on your own moral compass). Many authors of culture-shifting designs have looked back on their creations with regret. As I enter the design profession, I want to consider both the impact of the things that I’m helping to create, as well as to ensure those things don’t cause more harm than good.

To help me make sense of this idea, I started to create a list of specific products, inventions, and initiatives both from our course readings and from recent history and to map the relationship between their intended scope of innovation and their actual effect on global change. For the purposes of this exercise I mapped the following 11 creations which you can see in the 2 x 2 matrix below:

IDSE402_theory_assignment 1-chart with numbers

  1. Nuclear power – as an electricity-generating source, nuclear power is up for debate in terms of good vs. bad, but the advancements in science that led to nuclear power also led to the atomic bomb, which undeniably had radically destructive effects. For the purposes of this mapping exercise, nuclear power was intended to create change, and did so in many ways.
  2.  Automatic weapons – An obvious upgrade from single-shot guns, automatic weapons have been widely adopted, causing huge cultural change. Unlike single-shot weapons, which have uses other than warfare (such as hunting), automatic weapons, in my opinion, have only caused extreme harm for humanity.
  3. The World Wide Web – When Tim Berners-Lee proposed the information management system that would become the World Wide Web, he couldn’t have predicted the radical change it would bring to the world, ushering in the Information Age. Are we swimming in the freedom of unlimited information at our fingertips or drowning in a sea of noise?
  4. Plastic – This low-cost innovation to traditional materials has so radically permeated human lives, that it exists in everything from toothbrushes to spacecraft. Perhaps the hardest dichotomy for me to reconcile, plastics are responsible for all manner of medical, technological, and structural advancements, and yet due to their non-biodegradable qualities, have simultaneously caused much of the massive environmental destruction of our planet (which I doubt we will be able to recover from).
  5. K-cups – Inventor John Sylan was trying to solve a common office problem of stale coffee at the communal coffeepot with these encapsulated individual servings, and had no intention of contributing so drastically to the environmental nightmare caused by their inability to be recycled.
  6. Cameras in mobile phones – Added as a feature to cell phones in the mid-2000s, these mobile cameras democratized photography. Coupled with widespread use of the internet, cameras on phones have made everyone a photographer, in turn causing effects that range from the rise of social media (and its impact on culture) to the near elimination of photojournalism as a profession.
  7. Apps to solve homelessness – Always an epic fail. “There’s an app for that” doesn’t apply to solving wicked problems.
  8. The San Francisco SPCA Knightscope security robot – This robot was used in 2017 to police the premises of the SF SPCA, with a debated intention to remove nearby homeless people. Not long in use, it was an expensive and hostile band-aid solution to a systemic problem.
  9. #metoo – Tarana Burke, a social activist, began using the phrase “me too” in 2006 to draw attention to sexual harrasment and sexual assult. But it was in 2017, when the hashtag was used and promoted on Twitter by Alyssa Milano in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment allegations, that it drew awareness to widespread (and often not talked about) experiences of sexual harassment and assault. This is a compelling example to me of something that started extremely small, but catalyzed an entire movement aimed to change social norms and behaviors.
  10. Product Red – a licensed brand as part of a business model that raises money from the purchase of consumer goods to fund efforts to eliminate AIDS in certain African countries. Although the company claims to have raised millions of dollars and to have impacted more than 140 million lives, it’s difficult to determine how much widespread change this consumer activism has affected.
  11. The keytar – Is it a keyboard? Is it a guitar? It’s…a keyboard with a neck strap. And it didn’t end up being the great music industry disruptor that Edgar Winter might have wished for.

edgar winters

Designer responsibilities

To ensure that we create more beneficial impact than negative impact, it’s important to keep in mind 3 guiding principles of responsibility:

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As designers, we should speculate on potential future outcomes of our design projects. The most important questions we can ask ourselves are who will benefit from this design? and who will suffer because of it? When we actually take the time to map out the potential future state(s) of the ecosystem affected by our design, we can start to identify and keep in mind areas where problems or negative effects will occur, and then weigh those effects against our own moral compass to make sure we want to take responsibility for putting those designs into the world.

We also need to involve as many people who will be affected by our designs in the design process. This means not only researching within the community that will be using or affected by our designs, but also keeping community members involved in the creation and testing process. It’s important to understand not just the infrastructure around our proposed design, but also the behaviors and belief systems of the individuals that will be impacted.

Lastly, once our designs are out in the world, we need to evaluate how those designs are affecting the communities within which they exist. Did the design have the intended consequences? Who is benefitting from the design? Who is at a disadvantage because of it? It’s vital to both address negative consequences in the living design and work towards improvement in that specific instance, as well as use any feedback to inform future design decisions in other projects.

Whether a designer works on something as seemingly banal as a camera feature in a cell phone, or as intentionally impactful as bringing clean water systems to rural India, there is potential for great cultural shifts, and with that comes great responsibility. By keeping future, current, and past states of our design in constant consideration and involving affected community members as much as possible, we can practice responsible design and stand behind what we put out in the world.