Harmful Designs - Informing Ethical & Sustainable Design in the Age of Social Media

A design is sustainable if the design solutions which "meet the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to fulfill their own needs” Thomas Sandell – designer and architect

If you walk through the hallways of any Silicon Valley corporation, you will undoubtedly come across a group of designers huddled at whiteboards, charting out ideal product visions, with colorful sticky notes and markers. In reality, many of these gatherings are like the looped scenes in Groundhog day – with no output, diminishing in value day by day. I recently spoke with a group of peers about this phenomenon, and they too will attest to this vacuous weekly churn, which is the growing state of in-house design teams. Designers, for the most part, re-live these comforting scenes, wholly removed from the actual products they are meant to inform and influence. Designers have taken a back seat in favor of bottom line premiums, moving at the high pace of technological change, driven by big data, business strategy, and marketing functions. Operative words like "disruption" and "first to market," "machine learning" inform the direction of product design with little regard for the "design thinking" approach, which previously drove systematic, conscious and ethical product design. So it is no doubt that Designers and the thinking they espouse reside in conference rooms and "theoretical" bubble – rarely practiced – sometimes never making the light of day.

Once upon a time, many in-house design teams comprised of a myriad of design functions, and for a good reason. Some of these design functions include User Researchers, Psychologist, Anthropologists, Interaction Designers, Ergonomist, Design Architects, Visual and Interaction designers who collectively contributed to understanding users and their context of product use. My experience at Siemens reflects this design team constitution, boding well for the company's high product quality. Much like the construction of a building with its many functional units (architect, electrician, plumbers, roofers, for example.), these Product design teams focused heavily on users, first and foremost, ensuring the designs they created considered the human experience in all its complexities. Such design aspects as efficiency, users' satisfaction, learnability, effectiveness, and error recovery were elements of product design that informed the design process and eventual acceptance of a design. Psychologist on these user research teams addressed the impact of design on users psyche; a Visual designer focused on the visual applique; Linguists discuss the semantics of how users may best interact the system and so on. Today, however, it seems all of this attention to users and their context has gone out the window. There is also a growing void of user advocates who uphold these checkpoints that allow us to predict usage experience, as collective potential societal impact. Through rigorous user testing (lab, longitudinal and ethnographic studies), designers can monitor and predict how a product will perform in a users context. However, today a lot of user research is shelved in preference for big data that provide a big picture view of product "market" performance with little regard for users. Rigorous user research enables us to predict product impact, with consideration for potential pitfalls and opportunity to iterate and improve.

Some of the questions that plague society today revolve around a generation of technology addiction and the seeming erosion of our social fabric by overuse of technology. Many users are trapped in the forays of design and products all vying for limited human attention. Nowhere are the damages of ill-thought out designs seen than in the world of social media and by extension gaming - another area that seems to require its ethical design consideration on many levels.

In 2017 the World Health Organization, under section ICD-11 Beta Draft - Mortality and Morbidity Statistics has classified gaming addiction as the disorder and defines it as follows:

Gaming disorder is characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour (‘digital gaming' or ‘video-gaming'), which may be online (i.e., over the internet) or offline, manifested by 1) impaired control over gaming (e.g., onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context); 2) increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities; and 3) continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. The behavior pattern is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning. The pattern of gaming behavior may be continuous or episodic and recurrent. The gaming behavior and other features are normally evident over a period of at least 12 months for a diagnosis to be assigned, although the required duration may be shortened if all diagnostic requirements are met, and symptoms are severe.

In the realm of social media, similar patterns of user behavior are also emergent. Such built-in features like the Snapchat Streak demand user attention for unhealthy periods of time and social media likes have itself become its business supplying dopamine hits to users addicted to these platforms. Further, users' pilfered data is manipulated to ensure users engagement. Big data also replaces any form of conscious and ethical user-centricity to design; instead, the goal is how individual user data is manipulated to hold our attention, turning some into addicts looking for daily hits of dopamine. The disturbing news is that a generation of users suffers from social media addiction, with no guidance, retribution, and recovery or support from the companies that have unleashed these networks unto humankind. In the era of big data, many companies have forgotten users' humanity, as they all fight for market dominance. Companies measure their success by the number of users on their platform, which translates to advertising dollars - but how many companies hold the same level of consideration for their human users?

  1. Where did Product Design go wrong?
  2. What is the role of Designers in ensuring ethical and sustainable oversight when designing for humans?
  3. How might we course correct harmful designs?
  4. How might we advance the engagement of ethical design thinking into practice?

In a recent article by Guy Rolnik, about the growing concerns of the impact of social media on society, Sean Parker, founder of Napster – one of the internet first startups said:

"The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook is the first of them, ... was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? '" he told the news site Axios on November 9, 2017. The answer: to "give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. Moreover, that is going to get you to contribute more content, and that is going to get you ... more likes and comments. ... The inventors, creators – it is me, it is Mark [Zuckerberg] ... – Understood this consciously. Moreover, we did it anyway."

For those who have followed Facebook over the years, you may also be part of the social conversation of how Facebook and other social media platforms have manufactured a generation of "time wasters" and "antisocial" humans, with skewed notions of friendships and interaction. In the past, these complaints received little credence; however today a growing number of Facebook insiders are testifying and speaking out about Facebook's detrimental impact on society. The topic is also timely as Facebook execs now sit on Capitol Hill in hearings that seek to understand the wider role of social media such as Facebook and Twitter on not just society but politics as well. Even as far back as 2014, this topic, which many thoughts had peaked was still in full practice. In a Huffington Post article "WhyFacebook Should Follow Ethical Standards — Like Everybody Else" Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, defended the company's controversial experiment, which manipulated users' newsfeeds to change their moods. But in so doing, she only served to raise more ethical concerns about Facebook and other social platforms. She argued that the Facebook and other social media sites regularly engage in research and that the practice is, therefore "acceptable." Some Facebook defenders rebutted that the company could conduct its experiments secretly and just not publish the results.

In 2011 when I wrote User Experience in the Age of Sustainability, I examined three aspects of sustainable design - the economic, sociological and environmental movement in business to make all products including digital ones more sustainable. Today I believe that the sociological aspects of the framework need an expanded definition that looks at the impact of product designs on our health, mentality, and human to human relationships; in other words, designs that do not harm!

Guidance in how we design and consume designs, such as games and social media is crucial. We do this for the design of physical objects to ensure they do not harm us as we use them; there is also legislative oversight over such things as online gambling, then why not for all such solutions with which humans interact. We also need to understand the potential for abuse of design through the lens of what contributes to societal demise. As a design community, we must bypass the pliability of our discipline to solve these new problems. For many business leaders, the field of design is an abstract function with little transcendent business value. For long Designers have taken on the role of corporate sycophants, just "happy to be there". Ethical, sustainable design thinking must lay the foundation for this next level of strategic design engagement before things continue to fall apart.