May you live in interesting times — this is an old Chinese proverb, considered by some even to be a curse. Undoubtedly, these times are precisely the ones we are now living in. The world is gradually becoming dependent on new technologies, making designers more and more responsible for their final shape.
Design must not be accidental
As designers, we must be aware that the products and applications we create are used by millions — sometimes billions — of people, creating new markets, driving the economy and shaping social relationships. While being in pursuit of continuous self-improvement and striving to be a “unicorn”, it is essential to remember that our work has a real impact on other people’s lives.
The “ with great power comes great responsibility” originally applied to Spider-Man, but it also translates into the work of the designer. Designers have a big responsibility. Each project decision contains a part of ourselves, reflects how we perceive the world, how we read the emotions and feelings of others.
Designing a simple form or creating a new reality in the virtual world can give us the opportunity to overcome harmful stereotypes and misconceptions. When creating digital solutions, let’s consider how to shape them with diversity in mind, and what role they can play in the fight against i.e. racism or ethnic prejudices.
I think most readers remember the widely commented case of Microsoft and the chatbot designed by them. Tay was created in 2016 and its communication with users took place via Twitter. To everyone’s amazement, just a few hours after the launch, the artificial intelligence started to publish offensive, racist posts. It turned out that chatbot created its entries on the basis of interaction with users of the portal, who taught it such behavior. As a result, Tay was switched off after 16 hours. Could this have been prevented? Did the designers think about all the effects of their design?
A similar situation happened to Snapchat when they introduced a new filter allowing users to transform themselves into Bob Marley. The filter had its premiere on the unofficial Cannabis Day — 4/20. Many Snapchat and Twitter users were offended by the fact that the company degraded Bob Marley to the role of a mascot who only smokes cannabis. The fact that the filter changed the skin color of the users to black, it was even referred to as “digital blackface” referring to the infamous times of racial segregation, has not escaped attention. As in the example above, we can ask ourselves the question: were the originators surely thinking about all users and recipients of their application and their emotions?
Don’t postpone availability. Promote it!
Do you consider people with disabilities in the design process from the very beginning? When conducting user research, do you care about the diversity of the research group? Or maybe it is rather pushed to the rest of the track and at the end of the project you simply place a bar with redirections to the contrast version of the page. Interfaces that we create can have a huge impact on the lives of others, including people with disabilities, and there are more than 4.5 million of them in Poland.
Accessibility is an aspect that affects the society in which we live, and a preclusive UX is simply a lack of the UX. Availability means taking care of the quality of product implementation at every stage, starting with the concept, through design and testing, up to the implementation itself.
The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.
Tim Berners-Lee (Chairman of W3C)
Dependence on technology. Who is responsible for it?
The technology is incredible, but there are new threats, which were unknown up until now. Humanity in a short period of time achieved something that was unimaginable a few decades ago. Technology is now an inseparable part of practically every person’s life. We constantly feed our brains with information, but unfortunately we often do not pay attention to its quality. It’s like eating — we have to be able to distinguish valuable food from junk food in order for our body to be healthy and properly nourished. We must learn the same thing in the context of technology and access to information.
Most of us have met the term technology addiction, which means a disturbance in the control of nerve impulses, associated with obsessive use of mobile devices, the Internet or video games. The task of designers of services and digital solutions is to ensure that our projects do not make their users dependent, cheat them and do not take advantage of their weaknesses. Our goal is to provide decent, quality products and services, not digital junkfood.
An example of positive actions in the technology industry can be the recent campaign of Common Sense Media and Center for Humane Technology, companies associating experts from the technology industry, including Google and Facebook employees. “The Truth About Tech” advertising campaign warns against the potentially harmful effects of over-involving employees in the use of technological tools, and raises the problem of technology addiction among children and young people.
Experts associated with the initiative recommend that their products include functionalities that allow users to control the time they spend e.g. in the application we have created. At the same time, not hiding such functions somewhere deep in the system, but rather showing them to the users right away, so as to build in them the awareness of the existence of such a problem as dependence on technology.
Our fight against dark patterns
When using the Internet, the user does not read and analyze in depth all the words on each page. If a company wants to persuade someone to do something they care about, they can do it in a dishonest and unethical way, using the so-called “dark patterns”. They are mainly based on visual design and take advantage of users’ habits and inattention. Dark patterns are in direct conflict with the concepts we believe in as designers, i.e. they contradict the notion of empathy and focus on the user. Employers often push and try to influence the decisions of designers. At the beginning it may be a matter of simply subscribing to the newsletter, but the problem often escalates, for example, to adding products to the cart without a conscious decision of the user. An example of such behavior can be airlines, which often select the option of additional insurance or baggage by default. The user must then realize that the option has been added to his order without his knowledge in order to react in time and remove it from the cart. It is important to be aware that it is our role as designers to be vigilant and to react to such bad practices in companies.
If your company is just in it for the money, maybe you should look for a better company. It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.
Alan Cooper (expert in UX)
Use your influence
Designers need to start to realise that they have a real influence on the decisions made in the organisation.
Building an ethical value system at work requires a lot of effort. However, thanks to this we become better designers and thus better people. It is UX designers who should be the moral compass in product teams, building awareness among the other members. Learning how to use tools or training in the craft is much easier than building solid foundations for our work based on ethics. I think it is worth taking up this challenge for the benefit of yourself and the users.
Every human being on this planet is obligated to do our best to leave this planet in better shape than we found it. Designers don’t get to opt out.
Mike Monteiro (Co-founder of Mule Design)