Where Good Intent Intersects with Design
In the world we live in, when a person’s attempt to fix a problem goes sideways we often hear the defense “well they had good intentions,” or “it was well-meaning.” However, in the case where a solution with good intentions goes off the rails, we aren’t satisfied because we don’t care to hear the reasons why things fail. We want a solution. We want things to work. As a result, good intentions get put on trial, and its value gets debated. Moreover, we end up with expressions and books with titles like “good intentions are not enough.”
Our class has been pondering the questions of “Are good intentions helpful? Or is it selfish altruism? Beneficial for the person we want to help or ourselves?” Moreover, these questions have the implications of should we let good intentions be the guide in the way we want to do good in the world.
Hi, I am Kim, born a chaos muppet and self-made order muppet. I naturally embrace chaos as a challenge to create an order from it. I want to share with you my philosophy on how embarrassing disorder and working towards creating order makes for a well rounded, thoughtful interaction designer. I want to use an example to walk you through the mind of a chaos muppet trying to create some order. Here are the steps I went through to unpack this topic of ‘what is this thing, good intention?’, and ‘what are its values.’
1. Breakdown and Sort the Conversation.
In the debate of ‘how good intention intersects with Design’, putting intent on trial is not fair, because we have not taken the time to understand its nature. So let’s begin by parsing out the facts from opinions.
- Humans problems are made by humans and/or are a result of humans not playing well with what exists.
- As long as humans are around, there will be problems.
- Bandaid solutions are great for stopping the bleeding, the emergency at hand.
- Complex things are made of smaller pieces that work together.
- We don’t know what we don’t know.
- We learn by trying or testing things out.
- Intentions aren’t good enough.
- Design solutions only create more problems.
- Wicked problems are hard or feel impossible to solve.
By doing this, we can start to understand which practical steps we can take next. Opinions are a flimsy foundation to build on because opinions and views are a verbal extension of our feelings. It doesn’t make opinions and viewpoints less valuable, but it does make your foundation a moving target.
2. Find a pattern then ask the right questions.
We have been asking our self if good intentions ARE enough. Depending on whom you talk to and their experiences you will hear a mix of things. So, is the good intention behind a design solution sufficient for it to work? After all, when we see examples of design solutions with large scale impact and success, the founders and designers always talk about the intent of the project, take Spring Health Water’s project in India for example. They intended to create technology that is easy to use and maintain, create income for shop owners, jobs for those working for the company, and to supply clean, uncontaminated water to the masses at a super affordable price. The intention seems good, and the execution proved successful, yet today they are now struggling with getting adoption in rural areas. People’s intentions are not the only variable at play here.
The question “Are the good intentions behind a design solution enough for the solution to work?” begs the questions “Well, what is the goal?” Let’s say the goal is to have an impact (far-reaching, or profound), and sustainability (the solution should thrive, and not become relegated to the history pages of design as a field.)
In another example the effort to reduce alcoholism, we see plenty of efforts working at various scales. I’ve summarized these efforts and mapped it relative to its impact and sustainability. Here we see efforts to reduce alcoholism on working at various levels:
- Small group — ex. A family & friend intervention for a one person
- Organization— ex. MADD (Mothers against drunk driving)
- Nationally — ex. Prohibition, AMOD (A Measure of degree) which is an effort born out of numerous terrible stories we hear about college students and their drunken mistakes.
If these solution’s outcomes can change so dramatically with a change in any variable, then this tells me that we are looking at the problem & solution relationship all wrong. We have been conditioned and taught that problems and solutions have a cause and effect relationship, but this is a narrow perspective. It assumes that one key variable is responsible for the solution’s success or failure. Instead, when dealing with problems that persist despite our intentions and attempts, we need to consider that the relationship of problem and solutions is one if systems, where all variables have the potential to influence on the outcome dramatically. This is true of many, if not all wicked problem.
3. Understanding Design Solutions In a System