Creating an Ethical Framework

Throughout this quarter, we have been tasked with creating an ethics framework that will guide us our decisions as designers. This has been no easy feat. There is no universal set of ethics, and almost every decision of importance requires trade-offs. Even when you think you are designing something that benefits everyone, there is the possibility that your design will have unintended effects or be co-opted and used for nefarious purposes by others. The field of design is strewn with such cases, whether it be Airbnb giving hosts the agency to choose their guests (resulting in discrimination) or Cambridge Analytica adopting algorithmic prediction software to sway political elections.

Ethics can be considered from various approaches, and two in particular inform this framework: the consequentialist Common Good Approach, which stipulates that good actions should consider and benefit the whole of society, with consideration for the most vulnerable; and the non-consequentialist Rights Approach, which determines good by evaluating the impact of an action on the rights of those affected by it, emphasizing that people never be treated as means to an end.

The Framework I have created was influenced by earlier models I’ve created, the Star of Good Design and the Identity Rainbow. These ethical approaches and previous studies, culled from readings and discussions on design patterns, privacy and identity, and emerging technology, inform the basis of my logic and the nature of my questions.

An Ethical Framework

The dark red questions are open-ended. If you find yourself in the bottom right corner (For whom?) you should reflect and return to the Am I okay with this? box above, then proceed to the agency question. This is a work in progress.

When facing the benefits and drawbacks of an ambiguous situation (or in all scenarios, really), consider the following questions:

Framework Questions

I’ve used this model on a few different scenarios. For example, imagine a health organization operates an app that provides reminders to take medicine and menus of daily meal options that meet nutritional value goals. The organization would now like to encourage people to exercise more. 

You have been asked to design a request asking users to create an exercise regimen every time they receive their medication reminder or set up a meal plan. This notification cannot be turned off, and must be declined each time. The organization thinks that, with enough prodding, users will eventually create a plan, and that they will ultimately be thankful once they set it up. 

If I follow my framework, I will eventually get to the question of whether this causes unintended harm. It very well could: annoying reminders could persuade users to stop using the app altogether, and they would no longer have access to the medication reminders and meal plans. So I would have to ask myself additional questions and determine the severity of the situation and what options I have to influence it.

I would proceed in the following way:

  1. I would make an argument as to why I think this is a bad idea and pitch alternatives.
  2. If unsuccessful in my efforts, I would ask if I could be reassigned from the project.
  3. If I had to, I would work on the project. There would be drawbacks to implementation, but also benefits. The drawbacks are not significant enough to quit the position.

I believe that this sort of reasoning must be employed when making ambiguous decisions. For example, if I were asked to craft a deceptive terms and conditions acceptance protocol, I would protest, but ultimately acquiesce if necessary, assuming that the terms are not more dangerous than industry standards. Since people are already used to sharing private information online, it would not be worth losing my job to try to change one company’s protocol. 

But let’s return to the hypothetical health organization above. Imagine that the next initiative was to obtain users’ medical records, so that the app could make  tailored meal plan recommendations based on their health conditions. I would not work on this project. Combining medical records with shopping behaviors could result in discriminatory action by health insurers and government agencies, if they were to obtain this information. By storing this data together, I would be creating existential risk for our users.

In the end, my takeaway is as follows:

Consider the ramifications of your work. Consider your responsibilities to yourself and to others. Seek outside input. Stand up for your values. Do no deliberate harm.

Again, this framework is a work in progress. If you have thoughts and would like to provide feedback or engage in conversation about the limits of this model, please email me at sean.redmond@ac4d.com. I would love to hear from you.

Redesigning the City of Austin’s Small Business Program

Man with Classes

This is the final part of an ongoing research project that aims to understand how people navigate the City of Austin’s Small Business Program services and how they get value from the system. Our research began with PeopleFund, a community lender, and expanded in its scope as we learned more about the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Preliminary themes from our research can be found in part 2, our service slice evaluation can be found in part 3, and information on insights gathered can be found in part 4.

After four months spent researching the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, this project concludes with design criteria aimed to improve the City of Austin’s Small Business Program.

My research has led me to conclude that the Small Business Program does not holistically prepare entrepreneurs to launch a business. Although everyone I spoke to appreciated the wealth of resources the city makes available, many found it difficult to navigate the path to actually getting their first customers. In addition, there are key skills that the Small Business Program does not promote, such as confidence in public speaking, that could benefit small business owners. Networking contributes significantly to business success, and this is one area in which the city can focus on to help strengthen entrepreneurial skills.

For a full summary of the research and a look at the design criteria I’ve created, please visit my website.

 

In Search of Techno-Utopia

Lately, our class has been reading about how emerging technologies have been used as tools of oppression. The most heart-rending case is what’s happening in China to the Uighur population: under the guise of fighting terrorism, the largely Muslim Uighurs are being monitored and tracked, their past and present behaviors used to identify individuals in need of “re-education.”

We are all familiar with the concept of the techno-dystopian future. Movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix are classic examples in film, and the entire genre of cyberpunk is built upon the idea. Our fear of future technologies has driven creation of countless stories exploring the potential ramifications of our technological advancement. But there are fewer ideas concerning what a techno-utopia might look like. Given that we are tasked with improving society via design, I want to explore what this might look like. I’ve created a diagram below to capture some of the tenets that I associate with techno-dystopian and techno-utopian futures.

Techno-Utopia and Techno-Dystopia

The concepts of dystopia and utopia would presumably exist in totally separate spheres, and most of these traits seem to be in diametric opposition. However, there is a tension between the two. With decentralization of power and personal autonomy comes the potential for majority rule without regard for society’s most vulnerable. As technology erases the power of gatekeepers to direct information and shape public opinion, techno-utopia risks turning into the worst corners of the Internet: driven by tribalism, fake news, and fear-mongering.

 

Risk of Mob Rule

This leaves us with the following question:

How can we protect the rights of minority populations in a world of decentralized authority?

There’s no easy answer to it, but this question must guide our ethical frameworks as designers. As we attempt to steer ourselves toward techno-utopia, this may be the most important question that we face.

Privacy and Identity: How do we ensure informed consent?

Online consent forms are ubiquitous. You must enable cookies and accept privacy policies and terms of use for almost every site you visit. How many people actually read these forms, or know what they mean?

I recently visited the CNN home page and was met with a small banner at the bottom of the screen. It read “By using this site, you agree to our updated Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.” I did not have to read through these terms or agree to them to access the site; my consent was given (without my consent!) immediately upon visiting. By clicking to view the Privacy Policy, I learned that my location could be tracked, my IP data monitored, and social media data captured, including my name, email, photos, gender, and social network.

Sadly, this did not surprise me, and it probably would not surprise most readers. We are used to giving this data away as a price to pay for Internet access and the convenience that the Internet provides us. We can read the news for free from home. We can pay our bills online. We can go grocery shopping without leaving the house. We can look at our friends’ vacation photos and send them messages. We like having these conveniences, but they come at a cost.

We give away our consent freely because we have been conditioned to do so. But giving away pieces of our identity data has risks. I’ve attempted to catalog those risks in the chart below.

Identity Data Risk Table

The chart is categorized by color according to layers of identity data.

Green pieces of information are what I call Social Relationship Data. This information is required to have relationships with others, and is mostly used for messaging and identity verification in social networks.

The gray layer contains what I call Societal Integration Data. This information is necessary to obtain basic, crucial services. Shopping and banking are made possible by this information (in addition to Social Relationship Data). To live without an address or access to financial institutions can create difficulty in finding work and fulfilling basic needs.

Blue data are what I call Existential Data. This information is core to your personhood and cannot be changed. It is, consequently, the most important information about you. Discrimination based on health status and citizenship status is widespread, and this layer of identity data is most frequently used to cause personal harm.

I’ve created what I call the “Identity Rainbow” to illustrate these layers, pictured below.

Identity Rainbow

When we share data about ourselves online, it is almost always data from the Social Relationship and Societal Integration layers. We allow this data to be shared because we have faith in institutional safeguards that protect us from the dangers of losing this data. We assume that banks will protect us if someone steals our credit card and misuses it. We assume the police will protect us if someone finds our address and angrily comes to our house.

We do not worry about keeping this data private because the risks of losing this data are low. They are not low for everyone—those under threat of physical violence, for example, would want to keep their address and location private. The convenience of sharing that data for those individuals does not outweigh the danger. But for most people, the convenience of home delivery outweighs the fear of home invasion.

This is a calculated risk that can be provided with consent. However, to ensure informed consent, we must be aware of those risks and actively choose to embrace them. By stealthily sharing identity information about me, corporations abuse their trust.

Informed consent requires active sharing of information in a deliberate, thoughtful fashion. It should allow us to choose which layers of identity data to share with different organizations and require us to proactively make this choice. However, doing this on a website-by-website or organization-by-organization basis is tedious and leads to disengagement. Consequently, we shrug off important consent forms and freely share our information without realizing it.

The creation of universal online identities with inherent privacy settings, such as a firewall, would give control back to users and allow for truly informed consent. However, it is important to consider what information this should entail. Information from the Social Relationship and Societal Integration layers allows us to easily act as consumers and fulfill our day-to-day needs. Existential information is required, however, for health care services, paying taxes, voting, and other important needs.

Identity Data Web

If we were to combine all of our identity information under one identity, we could allow integrated access between all of the institutions that currently safeguard that data, including the government, hospitals, banks, and corporations. However, allowing access to all of this data creates existential risk. Obtaining access to all layers of identity information can result in identity theft and a complete loss of freedom—a literal erasure of your existence.

Given the risk, is informed consent to sharing this information ethically permissible? Are there any benefits that outweigh the danger, and in what circumstances? The answer, as I see it, is no. A universal identity, whether centralized or decentralized, should take this into consideration and ensure that existential data is not linked or stored together with other forms of identity information.

Researching Makers’ Financial Attitudes and Behaviors: Part Three

This is part of an ongoing research project that aims to understand the financial attitudes and behaviors of makers who primarily receive their income from variable, contract-based employment. Part One provides information about “makers,” why we chose them, and our project goals. Part Two offers select stories from our interviews. Here, we present three themes that we have identified in our research.

In our last blog post, Kyle, Lauren and I told you about four artists who earn their income working in arts and arts-adjacent fields, primarily through contract-based work. We spoke to Pete, an A/V technician, photographer and musician; Rodney, a sculptor and craftsman; and Carrie and Becca, two visual artists with a creative studio who provide signage and wayfaring for local restaurants.

Since then, we’ve spoken to a total of 12 makers, including construction workers, set and prop designers, gallery designers, carpenters, and other art- and craft-based workers. From their stories, we have identified three themes that we feel are important to understanding the financial motivations of these workers.

Pete sharing his work schedule

Pete sharing his work schedule.

Theme 1: A variable schedule incentivizes working as little as possible.

Many of our participants told us how much they enjoy their free time, and this plays a part in their decision to work on a contract basis. It gives them the freedom to work when they want to, as they need to. We had hypothesized that the uncertainty of this type of work would lead individuals to work as much as possible and save as much as possible, to prepare for the times when they have trouble finding work. We found that this frequently wasn’t the case.

Take Pete: he told us “I take every gig I’m offered,” yet he also said “I only need to work seven days a month…sometimes I only need to work 4 days a month.” He could work more, but valued his free time more highly than the extra money. The people we spoke to knew how much they needed to make to cover their expenses, and they typically worked to that limit. As Rodney put it, “I [make] generally around $2,000 a month. It’s kind of like, I gotta make $2,000 to be broke but not have everybody mad at me.”

Rodney

We asked Rodney to pretend the cotton balls were $100 bills and asked what he’d do with this extra money. He told us he’d find ways to spend it. 

Theme 2: A variable income creates temptation to make large purchases.

Another trend we’ve observed is that variable income can lead to large influxes of money, which is then easy to spend. Carrie and Becca told us how their first year, after receiving some big contracts, they went out and leased a new, much larger studio. When we asked Rodney what he would do with $1,000, he said, “The only time I’ve ever had this, I went and bought a sailboat.”

Henry, a carpenter and owner of a local remodeling business, spoke to the phenomenon. “I’ve seen so many, umpteen guys that come in, they get one big job, and then then they’re driving the F350,” he told us. “Then they have a couple bad jobs and they’re driving the wife’s Corolla.” Sure enough, within a year, Carrie and Becca had given up their larger studio, realizing they couldn’t actually afford it.

Becca and Carrie at their computer

Becca and Carrie share the database they’ve created of all of Austin’s restaurants.

Theme 3: Work opportunities are word of mouth, so networks are crucial.

Almost everyone we spoke to emphasized the importance of having a network who can connect them to regular work opportunities. After years of networking, Pete told us, “They call me — and that’s one thing I love about my current situation. I never ever look for work. It just comes to my door and I say yes I can do it or no I can’t do it.” Others have to hustle a bit more, but work always seems to come through. Carrie and Becca, for example, find work by going out to eat and introducing themselves to the restaurant staff. “We’re literally landing a client almost every time we would go out to eat,” Becca told us.

Feedback

We presented our findings to JUST last Saturday, and they shared some helpful feedback with us. They agreed that volatile income makes it difficult for people to plan, as constant scarcity crushes the belief that it is possible to make a better world for yourself. We are not sure if our interviewees demonstrate this mindset: because they are “self-marginalized” and could theoretically find other, more stable work, it is hard to know if they feel they are trapped in their situations. The makers we interviewed told us that their lifestyle is one of choice as opposed to necessity.

We were told that many JUST clients sacrifice their credit to help their community, and makers are a group that values community very highly. Many people we spoke to also have bad credit, frequently due to unpaid student loan debt. Microcredit helps promote financial discipline, and this could potentially help some of the people we spoke to learn to save more, if they are so inclined. However, because they are “reverse entrepreneurs” — creating businesses in a haphazard way, as a means not to make money but to achieve freedom and pursue their passions — it is hard to know whether the type of financial incentives that help those deliberately starting a business would also be of interest to artists who mostly just want to do their own thing and make just enough money each month to get by.

Insights into the City of Austin’s Small Business Program

This is part of an ongoing research project that aims to understand how people navigate the City of Austin’s Small Business Program services and how they get value from the system. Our research began with PeopleFund, a community lender, and expanded in its scope as we learned more about the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Preliminary themes from our research can be found here and our service slice evaluation can be found here.

Photo with Mayor

Recipients show off their certificates for completing six Small Business Program classes offered by the City of Austin.

 

The City of Austin’s Small Business Program helps people learn how to start a business. It provides personalized coaching and classes on marketing, accounting, business plans, and other topics. The program has proven helpful to many people who’ve used it, but it can be difficult to navigate.

Classes are offered a la carte and provided without a clear hierarchy of importance. Courses and coaching are also provided by various partner organizations, including the Austin Public Library, PeopleFund, BiGAUSTIN, SCORE, and others. The city works to connect people to these organizations, but overlapping services can lead to redundant effort and frustration.

“If the library also offers classes, are those different?” someone asked during a BizAid Orientation class I sat in on.

“Different divisions, different departments,” responded the program facilitator. “We do a lot of the same stuff, everybody, whether it’s us, PeopleFund, BiGAUSTIN.”

Austin Public Library workshop

A course offered by the Austin Public Library in conjunction with the City of Austin.

 

It is difficult for participants to determine what to do, where to go, and who to see. This leads people to forge a path the best they can, taking courses, attending networking events, and trying to build the confidence they need to successfully launch their businesses and obtain clients.

I spoke with Kate after attending the BizAid Orientation class. Kate is looking to create a catalog of local goods for school fundraisers. She’s attended nine classes offered by the City of Austin, as well as classes offered by SCORE and the Austin Public Library. She attended the BizAid Orientation class late in the process. “It didn’t sound that important to me,” she said. “It was all done backwards.”

Kate only took the class when she realized that doing so would grant her access to personalized coaching from the city. Although she’s taken many classes and received mentoring from SCORE, she still feels she needs help.

Kate

Kate is an aspiring business owner. Kate has taken nine courses from the City of Austin’s Small Business Program. She hopes to launch her business soon.

 

“I don’t know the middle process, exactly,” she told me. “And that’s what really makes me nervous.”

Nobody knows the middle process, because there is no process. “I get asked the question, ‘Well, where’s my checklist?’ and I haven’t been able to figure it out, because I don’t think it’s a linear process,” I was told by Gary, a counselor with the City of Austin. This may be true, but that doesn’t mean participants wouldn’t benefit from directed guidance.

The Confidence-Building Cycle

The confidence-building cycle, as experienced by Small Business Program participants. 

 

Two themes began to emerge from my research:

  • Program metrics are used to measure outputs and not outcomes.
  • Value is measured by the quantity of resources available.

“Part of our measures are, you know, how many new businesses were started, how many jobs were created,” Gary told me. “There’s probably, certainly a lot of intangibles. Was I inspired? Did I gain confidence? Did I increase my network? We don’t have the measuring stick in place to capture all of that.”

None of the nine counselors I spoke with at the City of Austin, PeopleFund, and SCORE could speak to metrics that focused on participants’ personal development.

What they did speak to, though, is resources. Lots of them.

“There’s always a pathway for resources.”

“We have a lot of resources we’re happy to share.”

“We have an awesome resource guide that we will print out and give to people that just has a ton of resources in it.”

Resources

Resources from the City of Austin, PeopleFund, and SCORE.

 

These are just a handful of the many references to resources that I heard. The system, I realized, is structured around providing as many resources as possible, with the idea that people will eventually figure out a path to success on their own.

Insight 1: A lack of clear structure to business and course progression creates uncertainty and depresses confidence. The Small Business Program should foster confidence by implementing a clear recommended pathway from idea to business launch.”

Talking to the eight aspiring (and one accomplished) business owners I interviewed, I learned that confidence was the key factor to success. Confidence is obtained from experience, from familiarity, and from success. First-time business owners are still trying to acquire these things, and until they do, they often lack confidence. But without confidence, they may never successfully launch their business. It’s a catch-22.

Claudia

Claudia, a mindfulness coach who is starting her own business.

 

Claudia is a mindfulness coach just starting her business. She’s worked with two clients, and one was unpaid. She’s determined, but shy.

“There’s still a little bit of anxiety, any time you reach out to someone,” she explained. “It’s like, they’re too busy, or they’re gonna think this is dumb.”

This fear of networking was common among participants. Agnes, a healthy eating program coordinator, likes to put together small gatherings of people so she can avoid large crowds. “If it’s like 100 people there, I get super nervous,” she said. “I probably won’t talk to anyone.”

“It’s just easier to talk to new people in a small setting,” she said.

Networking is crucial for identifying customers, but people are afraid to do it. Building confidence is the key to overcoming this obstacle. Right now, there are few ways for participants to build confidence, short of powering through. Some take classes over and over again. Others look to tangible products to help establish their identity. This often takes the form of websites.

“I don’t want to sign up and try to apply without having some kind of website,” Kate told us, explaining why she hadn’t yet asked schools to adopt her catalog. “I think it’s a matter of me hopefully finishing my website, and then going ahead and going for it.”

“The biggest thing, I think, is marketing, and that goes back to the website,” Claudia echoed.

Neither Kate nor Claudia need a website to launch their business, but both felt that they would not be successful without one.

Two more themes then emerged from my research:

  • People need to feel safe to share their aspirations.
  • A tangible product makes their business feel real.

From these themes, I drew my second insight.

Insight 2: Confidence is necessary to succeed as a business owner, but it’s hard to feel confident without clear indicators of success. To quickly build confidence, the city should assert that confidence can be learned and focus on emphasizing and strengthening this trait.

With these two insights in mind, I’ve concluded that the Small Business Program needs to move participants quickly from a “Fear” mindset to a “Confidence” mindset. Right now people must overcome this barrier on their own, but if the city were to explicitly focus on this, people would be able to launch their businesses faster and with a higher rate of follow-through. Streamlining courses by highlighting recommended steps would provide guidance and help people feel they are moving forward toward a goal. Specific confidence-building classes and events, such as small networking opportunities for new business owners, could help people that they are developing a skill. This would prepare them to better network, find customers, and launch their businesses.

The Takeaway: Program participants must be moved quickly from a “Fear” mindset to a “Confidence” mindset. By structuring the program to specifically promote confidence and providing a recommended pathway to business and course progression, participants will feel they are making progress and gain the confidence needed to follow through with their businesses.

Fear to Confidence Graphic

Creating Inclusive Design

Last week, I facilitated a 30-minute discussion on inclusive vs. exclusive design. Our conversation was largely influenced by this talk by Kat Holmes, Director of UX Design at Google. Holmes discusses how we should move beyond thinking of designing for the majority of people, and instead focus on creating design that reaches everyone. By focusing on those with particular needs, such as people with disabilities, we can create design that is more adaptable and useful for everyone.

Our conversation began with a brainstorm about the different ways that people can be excluded from design. Exclusion can stem from physical ability, such as how video game controllers require the use of fingers and hands, but it can also stem from other factors, such as race, education level, socioeconomic level, and gender. We should consider who our design is meant for and whether it can be easily used by all members of our audience.

John Porter states that “our job isn’t to tell [people] how to interact with what we create; our job is to create something that they can interact with in whatever way they choose to interact.” This is a great argument for creating design that fosters user control and adaptability, but it can lead to unexpected consequences. For example, we discussed how Airbnb’s platform allowed users to discriminate against others; by putting unlimited power in the hands of hosts, guests of color found themselves singled out and excluded by some hosts. How, we discussed,  do you reconcile user empowerment against the potential for users to shape the product or service in ways that negatively impact others?

whiteboard

Our whiteboarding exercise, brainstorming ways that users can be excluded from design and identifying the conflict of user control vs. potential for discrimination.

After this discussion, I led an exercise in which we designed a farmer’s market to be as exclusionary as possible. This was a fun exercise that allowed us to get silly, but some of the ideas we thought of—limited parking, no bathrooms—are commonplace.

We also thought about ways that places deliberately exclude others based on education and class. Many high-end products are, by their nature, exclusionary. It is acceptable in capitalist society to design for those with money and exclude the poor from purchase or use. However, we should be aware, when designing for the public, of how these biases may negatively affect those who otherwise should be able to benefit from a service.

Our discussion was enriching and thought provoking. At times, I found the conversation wandering away from where I thought it would go, and I had to think on my feet to connect it back to where I wanted it to. I hope to lean more into getting “off track” in the future and allowing organic conversations to take place. And although we covered the three main questions I wanted to discuss (see the whiteboard, above), I had hoped to more firmly establish takeaways from our conversation for each of these questions. This is something that I plan to build into future presentations and facilitations.

Exploring Gray Patterns: How can we tell if design is truly good?

Our class at AC4D has spent the past few weeks studying ethical quandaries in design. I’ve become particularly interested in dark patterns, which can be defined as tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something (courtesy darkpatterns.org). There are many types of dark patterns: straightforward ones like Hidden Costs and Disguised Ads as well as more humorous ones like the Roach Motel (when you’re trapped in a web of pages designed to get you to buy something) and Privacy Zuckering (when you’re tricked into sharing information publicly about yourself). The Internet is awash in dark patterns; one example can be found below.

Dark Pattern Design
This request uses dark patterns to guilt and shame us into accepting terms of use. This dark pattern is known as Confirmshaming.

If we are to be proactive in creating good design, we must do more than simply avoid using dark patterns—we must create light patterns. We can sum up the difference between dark and light patterns as follows:

Dark Patterns

  • Operate insidiously
  • Remove agency
  • Encourage negative behavior

Light Patterns

  • Operate transparently
  • Promote agency
  • Encourage positive behavior

It is easy to define light patterns by simply reversing the definition of dark patterns. However, it is much harder to identify light patterns than dark patterns. For example, consider this request I received from the language-study app Duolingo:

Duolingo image

On first glance, I would characterize this as a light pattern. But does it meet the criteria identified above? It’s promoting positive behavior, but it’s not exactly transparent—how does the notification system work? Am I agreeing to set up a regimented reminder or allowing Duolingo to send me unscheduled nudges and notifications? Do I want that kind of needling from an app? And what’s motivating this request—genuine interest in my education or a desire for more user minutes and more ad revenue? Does it matter?

How can we tell if design is truly good?

I don’t ask this question wondering whether design is effective, easy to navigate, or aesthetically pleasing. I ask this in an ethical sense. If we want to create design for the social good (and I do), we must understand what the social good entails. We must also understand the ways that design functions and its ramifications on both individual and social levels.

It is hard to identify light patterns in design because the above criteria are ill-defined. Consequently, when we set out to create light patterns, we often create what I identify as gray patterns. Gray patterns demonstrate the following characteristics:

Gray Patterns

  • Can be transparent or hidden
  • Aim to improve your experience
  • Promote ongoing behavior

Unlike dark patterns, gray patterns aim to improve your experience. They can be transparent or hidden (the example above is a bit of both), and they often promote further engagement with whatever program or service you are using. This can be good or bad, depending on each individual user.

Consider YouTube’s endless playlists. I often use YouTube to listen to music that I cannot find on Spotify, and YouTube’s algorithm has become very adept at finding music that I am likely to enjoy. I am glad that I can put a song on and let it play forever, never worrying about choosing the next song. This saves me time and energy and introduces me to music I would not otherwise discover.

YouTube playlists

YouTube’s “Endless” playlists are great for discovering new music, but can lead to mental and social disengagement.

However, this mechanism can have negative ramifications. If I’m on break from work and I put on a short comedy clip, the endless play of videos will tempt me into watching longer, distracting me from my job. It can promote binge-watching, eating up long periods of time and encouraging users to mentally disengage. This mechanism is effective at getting users to spend more time on YouTube. But are the effects good for users, or for society?

Gray patterns result when designers aim to improve a user’s experience without thinking through the ramifications. To help determine the difference between dark, light, and gray patterns, I’ve created the following schematic:

Design Pattern Observation Process

Light Patterns diagram

Again, differentiating between gray and light patterns requires an understanding of the term good. This conversation requires serious discussion, as there are many viewpoints that should be considered. A quick attempt at identifying “good” design criteria might look like this:

Good Design Criteria

Criteria to consider when designing for the social good.

I am sure there are many more criteria that I am leaving out. And even if we were to agree on a broad set of criteria to consider, implementing design to achieve these outcomes will be a significant challenge. It will require us to continually test our ideas for unintended impacts, as it is impossible to predict how the implementation of new technology will affect individual and collective behavior.

However, identifying the problem will allow us to iterate toward a solution. With this burgeoning framework in hand, I hope that I will learn to better differentiate between light and gray patterns and better design for social good.

Researching Makers’ Financial Attitudes and Behaviors: Part One

Kyle, Lauren, and I are working on a new project, partnering with local nonprofit JUST to learn more about financial attitudes and behaviors. JUST helps female, Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs build confidence and community via financial education and loans, and they are looking into how they can help other unique populations build confidence and financial security.

Our Project

Our immediate interest was to learn how people with contract-based employment are able to financially plan their lives. As we all work regular day jobs, this type of work intrigued us, and we wanted to learn more. We further narrowed our focus to artists and “makers,” conceived broadly, as we each have creative backgrounds and admire this population and the risks they take to pursue their art and craft full-time and on their own terms. With this in mind, we crafted the following focus statement:

Focus Statement: The focus of our research is to understand how “makers” whose primary income stems from variable, contract-based employment think about and make financial decisions.

Our concept of makers includes artists, musicians, creative tech workers, construction workers, craftspeople, and anyone with a specialized skill set who creates tangible products. We focused on contractors, as opposed to employees, a distinction captured in the following graphic:

Employees vs. Contractors

Our Methodology

For this project, we will be conducting 60- to 90-minute interviews with our target population. We will be speaking broadly to participants’ financial attitudes and behaviors, specifically with an eye toward understanding how variable and unpredictable income affects their attitudes toward spending and saving. We will be asking about any tools and techniques they use to aid in their financial planning, and we will be employing activities such as a “Dream Web” (pictured below) to help understand their aspirations and see how they envision their futures. With these interviews, we aim to understand how finances affect participants’ confidence and creativity, how agency and freedom impact their decisions, and how self-investment factors into their behavior.

Our Goals

  • To understand participants’ financial behaviors and motivations around future purchases 
  • To understand their attitudes about income, spending, and saving
  • To understand their sense of satisfaction with their financial and employment situation
  • To understand any financial strategies and tools they use to manage money

Our Progress

This week, we spoke to three artists working in various creative tech industries, including audio/visual tech, photography, sculpture, and music video production.

Lindsay dream web

Participant Lindsay filling out a dream web

Each artist had a unique perspective regarding spending and saving, but all agreed that having variable income made it difficult to plan. All participants conveyed the importance in investing in themselves as artists, in their tools and in their skills. All also mentioned that they enjoyed the freedom to pursue their dreams and work on their own schedules, although we heard that they would frequently jump at any work opportunity, no matter how short of notice, which adds some complexity to the concept of freedom.

Next Steps

As we continue in our research, we will be looking to better understand how finances influence creativity and confidence. We also hope to identify patterns in attitude and behavior that may speak to how artists are able to successfully create space for themselves in these industries and potentially move to more steady and/or stable employment. We also hope to understand how stress and anxiety affects these workers in particular, and how their risk tolerance allows them to operate in this space.

Service Slices: A Look at the City of Austin’s Small Business Program

This is part of an ongoing research project that aims to understand how people navigate the City of Austin’s Small Business Program services and how they get value from the system. Our research began with PeopleFund, a community lender, and expanded in its scope as we learned more about the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Preliminary themes from our research can be found here.
 

Entrepreneur Center of Austin
The Entrepreneur Center of Austin, where many of the city’s Small Business Program classes are held

 

In our research so far, my classmate Vickie and I have interviewed nine aspiring business owners and nine counselors who work for the City of Austin and its partner organizations who provide educational and financial assistance to small business owners. We have also attended four workshops hosted by the city to further understand some of the educational programming that is available.

One such workshop is the BizAid Orientation class. If you search for “small business help Austin” on Google, this is one of the first things that pops up. It is the recommended first step in the city’s educational offerings, and attendance is required if you want to receive one-on-one coaching assistance from the city.

BizAid Orientation is offered in-person and online. I took the brief 20-minute online class, and then signed up for the in-person one, which is 90 minutes long, in hopes that I would get more guidance and direction from it.

The online class is basically a list of programs, classes, and services. It turns out the in-person class is very much the same. After taking my seat among a handful of other attendees, class began. The instructor, who we’ll call Bobby, introduced himself. He asked if we were aware there was an online course.

There’s also an online version. Did y’all see that?” he asked. “I don’t know where you’re coming from, [but] you have to battle the traffic to come here.” Indeed.

Class is structured so that Bobby would present information, and we would follow along on a screen at the front of the room. Sometimes the information Bobby shared matched the screen, and sometimes it didn’t. There was also information shared via whiteboard and via materials that some of us had gathered from the back of the room. I was unaware of them and had not. The different sources of information led to confusion at times about what programs were being discussed. A model of the competing flows of information is pictured below.

Information Flow Chart
Competing flows of information (colored) from various sources at the BizAid Orientation class

 

We sped through the presentation, skipping entire programs and services listed on the screen. Ample time was spent answering questions, which sometimes were a result of confusion but were mostly a reflection of the complexity of the programs and business requirements. A visual representation of the information shared with us would look something like this:

 

CoA resources
Classes and services offered by the City of Austin’s Small Business Program

 

The diagram is non-hierarchical and ambiguous, which reflects the way that it was presented. Exclamation points represent programs or services that appeared on screen but were not mentioned or were otherwise unclear. For example, there is an entire category called Small Business Resources that exists inside the city’s catalog of small business resources. Small business resources all the way down.

These are just the offerings from the city’s Small Business Program. After going through this information, Bobby jumped online to share additional resources, including non-city organizations that help small business owners. Many of these programs offer the same types of help – “We do a lot of the same stuff, everybody, whether it’s us, PeopleFund, Big Austin,” Bobby said. It was not clear if any were better than the others, but one attendee, Kate, told us that the city classes were her favorites.

We spoke with Bethany after class to get her thoughts. “I did not think that there was really any content in the class other than an overview of what’s available,” she told us. “I think that they could restructure the class in a way that it would be better and more effective, more helpful for people.”

Everyone we spoke with was glad that there were so many resources out there, but navigating them can be challenging. Kate told us after class that she had already taken more than six courses offered in tandem by the city and The University of Texas at Austin – the number of courses required to get a Business Skills Certificate. But she hadn’t yet taken the orientation.

It didn’t sound that important to me,” she told us. “I want to learn what I want to learn – why do I need to take this introductory class?” She only signed up after she learned that you need to take it to get connected to a personal coach. 

“Yeah, it was all done backwards,” she said.

A small business owner’s journey map, if they were to take advantage of all of these resources, might look something like this:
 

CoA entrepreneur journey map
Sample journey map for someone navigating the City of Austin’s Small Business Program services and partner organization programs

 

The path could go on forever. The ambiguity of the process and not knowing what you don’t know leads to uncertainty and a lack of confidence, which can prevent people from actually starting their business.

“I don’t know the middle process, exactly. And that’s what really makes me nervous,” Kate told us. Consequently, she continues to take classes, waiting for the moment when she feels like she’s ready. But for the moment, she told us, “I’m gonna quit, just for a while, to concentrate on actually doing the business.”

Esteban is a successful business owner we have spoken with, who has launched his own companies. He used city resources when he was starting out. As he explains it, “It’s so easy to talk about doing things versus actually doing them…Entrepreneurs need to have the ability to get shit done.”

As we continue in our research, we plan to continue exploring the following ideas:

  • How do people build the confidence they need to take action?
  • Why is personalized attention so important?
  • Are there unmet needs that resources do not address?

These questions explore the themes we’ve seen emerge as we’ve spoken with various small business owners, and we believe they will prove fertile ground for learning more about how people interact with the city’s services.