The Good, Bad, Ethical Design, Users and Other Things We Don’t Talk About

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Ethical design is something we don’t hear or talk about a lot. We usually talk only about good or bad design. Let’s take a moment and talk about the impact the things we design have on people who use them. This is a fact. Everything we create has an impact on our lives and lives of other people. We shape our tools and our tools shape us. We sometimes forget this. Let’s talk about the good, bad and ethical design and other things we don’t talk about, but we should.

Good and bad Design

When people talk about design, they usually talk about one of the two things, aesthetics or function. This is the general idea of design. Well, unless you are actually a designer. Then, it gets a bit more complex, and sometimes even tricky. Yet, the majority of people, for whom design is not their shtick, usually think about design in these two terms, aesthetics and function. What these terms actually mean?

Aesthetics – It either looks pretty or it looks ugly

Aesthetics is quite easy to understand. When we and other people talk about this, we usually talk about how something looks like. We talk about the appearance of some specific object. Something is pretty, nice, neat, beautiful or even exquisite. Something else is ugly, bad, terrible or even hideous. And, finally, something can be good, okay, enough or average. These are some of the terms we use a lot when we talk about the design in the terms of aesthetics.

As we all know, the aesthetic side of those things around us is not everything. Sure, it often helps us make decisions and judge things. We will rather buy, take, use or play with things that look good, instead of something we are afraid to even touch. You know, spiders. However, pure appearance is never enough. Well, some exceptions that worth mentioning can be galleries as well as some museums and exhibitions. Other than that, we look for more.

Function – It either works or it doesn’t

This more we are talking about is function. Function is actually very easy to understand as well. Function usually describes how something works, how well, how bad, or how it doesn’t work at all. When we talk about usability, we also talk about function. However, we should keep in mind that usability is not the whole picture. Usability is only one part of the story. Yet, people often use this term, function, to describe the degree of usability of a certain object.

Something is usable when it works and especially when it works well. When it works badly, or when it doesn’t work at all, it is poorly usable or completely unusable. Another critical condition of usability is how natural to use something is. If some object requires reading a manual before we can use it, it changes our evaluation of usability, for the worse. The same applies when something doesn’t require any instructions at all. Then, our evaluation of usability changes as well, for the better.

Two sides of the same coin

We should also mention that these two qualities of design usually doesn’t work independently. They are, as they say, two sides of the same coin. Again, with the exception of galleries as well as some museums and exhibitions. They work together and one affects the other. In other words, when something looks good we often think it also “works” well. And, when something looks bad, we often lower our expectation about it.

This way, we can relatively easily create an illusion and manipulate with people’s expectations, assumptions and even their preferences. By making something look good, we can give people a reason to try some product. It doesn’t matter how functional it is. Sure, trying to use that thing one or two times and we know where the truth is. However, the point is that without that illusion we would not give that thing even one shot. Form follows the function? What about “form shapes the perception”?

Going beyond good and bad design

The World will probably not cease to exist just because we gave a shot to some bad product with good design. There are much worse things that can happen every day with much more serious consequences. How many people died because they used product X instead of Y, right? Well, let’s rather exclude medication and guns for this moment. These numbers are probably very low. So low, they don’t have any statistical significance. However, that doesn’t matter.

What I think really matters is the intention. What really matters is that someone knew that some product, say, had some issues with functionality. And, that person used design as tool to change people’s perception, assumptions and expectations which then lead to different decisions. How ethical is this? Imagine going to the doctor and getting different pills only because the description looks more promising. In the end, all we talk about is just a copywriting, only words.

This is why I think it is important to think and talk about beyond just good or bad design. We should start thinking also about ethical design, often rather unethical design.

The ethical design

Ethical design sounds like something special, right? Companies, or rather people in marketing, like to use that word “ethical”. It can have quite impressive effect on people. This word “ethical” often make us see products as more valuable or even exquisite. This, in turn, can influence our decision and pay more than we would do otherwise. Think about it for a minute. First, imagine a pair of shoes, one made in some average factory in China by some poor worker with a minimum wage.

Now, imagine a pair of shoes that looks the same as the first one from Chine. But now, it is made by people working for a proper wage and in proper conditions. This second pair of shoes is branded and sold as “ethical product”. Which one would you buy for a higher price? Many of us would be willing to pay more for the second pair. It doesn’t matter that these two pairs are identical. Don’t worry. This is not I mean by ethical design. Well, not completely. There are some similarities. So, what is ethical design?

Do you remember that part about someone using design to manipulate with people’s decision, to use good design as a way to supplement bad function? When we talk about ethical design we are talking about the exact opposite. Ethical design is about creating things only with good intentions and goals, at least for me. Ethical design is about creating something we believe will help people live better, richer, more productive and more fulfilling lives.

Addictive products and the attention economy

In this day and age, talking about ethical design is more important than ever before. Let’s take a look around ourselves. Almost every second company is trying to build some either “habit-forming” or “addictive” product. Well, this doesn’t have to be a reason for bringing more attention to ethical design. Unless, it is. When we take a look at many of these products, how many of them are really benefiting the user? And, how many of them only robs the user of her time?

This why this is almost the perfect time to discuss ethical design. We are deliberately building products that bring most of the value to the company itself, in the form of money, and less value to the user. There is this saying about social media networks that summarizes this the best: “On social media, users are not customers of the company, users are the product.” So, who is the real customer, almost nobody talks about?

Think about it. There are millions of people using these social media networks, in case of Facebook even billions. All these companies have to pay bills, and wages. However, these networks are for free. People don’t have to pay anything if they want to use them. This creates a problem with cash flow and sustainability. Luckily, there is an easy way to solve this problem. Yes, advertisers. Social media companies can trade attention and time of their users for money from advertising.

It is nice to hear all those statements about connecting the World. However, this doesn’t change one fact. These companies are employing hundreds and thousands of engineers with a single purpose. Their work is to find a way to keep users clicking and scrolling and using their products. And, no. It is not because they want to help us create “new connections with the World”. They just want to show us more ads so they can make more money from advertising. This is how the attention economy works.

It is not the tool, but how we use it

One interesting question is, are all “habit-forming”, or even “addictive”, products inherently bad? The answer is, no. Just as with almost every tool, the tool itself is neither good nor bad. What makes it good or bad is how we use it. Yes, we can use what we know about design and human psychology and build “addictive” products with that add value to the user. This is also what I want to suggest as an ethical design. Let’s build products users will not be able to resist and that will make their lives better.

There is an infinite number of areas where we can use design and human psychology and make boring, tedious or uncomfortable tasks easier. For example, imagine a child having fun while learning math or some language via some app. Or, imagine the same child having fun reading book for her homework. Or, imagine a man or woman who can’t wait for another workout session. Imagine a person wanting to lose some weight and having no problems following her diet.

This and much much more is possible. We can start building products that use psychology and design to motivate people to do things that are really beneficial for them. This should be one of the main ideas behind ethical design. Building products with good and positive goals and intentions. So, let’s help people build positive and healthy habits. Products that add value to people and make their lives better, easier, richer and more fulfilling.

Design, drug addicts and users

There is one last thing we should think about, when we talk about ethical design. How do we usually call those people addicted to some substance? Well, we call these people “users”, at least in English. And, how do we call those people using our products? Let me guess. We usually call these people “users”. Isn’t this a bit interesting, at least a little bit? How can we start thinking about the way we design things or objects for people if we use the same word we use for drug addicts also for these people?

The name follows the function

I get it. These people, the “users”, are using the products we created. Hence, we call them that way. It is similar to calling a writer “writer” because, well, it is someone who writes, or a device that is used to write. In other words, the name follows the function. Does that sound familiar? Well, let’s be precise. A writer is de facto also a user if he is using some writing device, be it a pencil, pen, typewriter or text editor.

If we think about it from this point of view, we are all “users”. We all use at least one device or tool. And, it doesn’t matter how technologically advanced that device or tool is. It can be just a stone or glasses or spoon. It is irrelevant that they don’t look hi-tech as a smartphone. All these objects are still “tools”. Therefore, any person using one of these tools is, again, just another “user”.

The problem with empathy

This is another problem. How much empathy does the term “user” evoke? When we talk about “users”, do we even think about them as people, as living human beings? This is one of the biggest problems with this term “user”, and the one I dislike the most. When we talk about the people using our products as users, there is always some danger that we will lose touch with these people. We may start to see them differently.

When this happens, and we lose touch, we stop seeing these people as living human beings, but like yet another objects with certain aesthetics and function. Nothing more and nothing less. Does this sound too far-fetched? Really? Are you sure? Because I am not. How many of us can honestly say that when they work on some design, and they think about the user, they actually imagine some real human being?

When you design something, do you have some person in mind, young or old, man or woman? If you work on an app for kids, do you really imagine a group of small kids having fun using that app? Or, do you think only about some persona you created for that project? Before I start thinking about ethical design and what it is, I was thinking mostly about persona, imaginary object with a set of specific characteristics and traits.

Let me ask you a simple question. How much empathy can this possibly evoke? Can we really say that we feel with that person, when we think about and work with persona? Answer this question for yourself. I already did it. And, the answer was not pleasant. Does it mean that we should abandon such fundamental tools in design as personas? No, not at all. We use these tools for a reason. They help us design better things.

What I want to say is that we should not take something such as empathy as granted, as an automatic part of the process. Empathy doesn’t happen automatically. In order to feel some empathy, we have to want to feel it first. We have to deliberately think about that virtual person and how she may feel. The same is true about ethical design. It will not happen automatically. We have to deliberately change the way we work and pursue it.

Changing the syntax?

So, should we start using a different term, for all those people spending their time using our products, than “user”? Is this a way to more ethical design? I don’t know. There is nothing that on this term that is inherently bad. It is just the association associated with this word some people like me may have. In case we decide to make this change happen, what term would be more appropriate word to use? Again, I don’t know. Maybe, we could start when it all started, with “people”. Then, let’s see where this takes us.

Closing thoughts on ethical design

Thank you for reading this article on ethical design. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. I also hope that this article, or at least some part of it, inspired you to think about how we use design. This was one of the goals I had for this article. It was not to give you the answers. Instead, it was primarily about showing some of the flaws in design and our thinking about it, or not thinking. Only working on these flaws can lead us to more ethical design.

Ethical design can help us create objects, or products, we can be really proud of because these objects help people. This is what I think ethical design is about. It is about creating something, in any shape and form, that helps people live better, richer and more fulfilling lives. Not just to create another X, but to really improve someone’s live. This is the final message I would like you to remember. This is what we should start to think about and do. Thank you.

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