We all know the tech industry must do better in anticipating and avoiding the adverse outcomes of our work. While much of the design community is committed to improvement and taking responsibility for the impact of what we create, there are few resources out there for how to improve.
In this two-part series, I will provide practical advice on how to design more responsibly. In part one, I explore what responsible design means and why it matters. In part two, I share four principles of responsible design and how you can apply them to your work.
As technology designers, we need always to strive to improve our understanding of the impact of our work, and bend the trajectory of our future towards a preferable vision rather than a negative one. At Artefact, we’ve been exploring methods and processes to do so for some time, inspired by many others in the design community trying to better perform our craft.
Strategic vs. Practical
First, let’s divide the principles and methods of responsible design into two broad categories of activities: the strategic and the practical.
Activities in the strategic realm are concerned with resolving macro questions about our design interventions. What positive outcomes are we trying to create in the world? What negative ones are we trying to eliminate? Do we understand the systems we want to influence well enough to intervene responsibly? It also touches on big ideas about global and social responsibility, ethics, and justice. If the work is in a commercial context, these activities are central to the economic success of the organization as well as how its interventions stand in harmony with its stated mission, purpose, values, brand, and strategic objectives.
Conversations in the practical realm are concerned with the crafting of responsible interventions. This includes the myriad micro design decisions made in the delivery or maintenance of a newly designed thing. Everything from policy and business model choices to aesthetics, usability, accessibility, aesthetics, social issues, behavioral impact, language, tone, marketing strategy, etc. For physical products, it involves choices around manufacturing and materials, processes, circularity, and environmental impact.
These two categories are a continuum rather than distinct, and relate to my definition of responsible design in Part 1: really understanding the domain you are trying to influence, and the impact of the intervention you are proposing. In this essay, I’ll explore some strategic responsible design principles that we are using at Artefact.
1. Align people, business, planet, and society.
In traditional human-centered design, we’ve focused almost exclusively on the alignment of just two stakeholder groups — the business and the user — without consideration of our impact on our collective societal benefits or the environmental consequences of our work.
In a commercial design context, we must try to find high-level alignment between designing something good for a business’ economic interests, while also considering the collective best interests of three other stakeholder groups: individuals (typically customers), society (impacted communities), and the environment.
Any design concept, intervention, or proposal that aligns the interests of all these groups is the preferable solution. This is the holy grail of responsible design, and perhaps the most significant change in mindset for designers moving forward. Any design that is potentially harmful to any one of these four stakeholders is generally irresponsible and worth avoiding. It’s possible to consider a specific proposal as benign or doing no harm to the interests of a stakeholder group. Consider the table below:
This simple evaluation framework can work at many different scales and applies across the continuum of strategic conversations, from a company’s strategy right down to feature- and policy-level conversations entirely in the realm of delivery.
This kind of evaluation is not always straightforward, but at the highest level, the macro alignment challenge can be a useful constraint or help push our thinking in unexpected ways. If we consider social networks for example, we might conclude that they are a fantastic business. Platforms are profitable, generally align to the interests of individuals, and are mostly neutral to the environment. Yet there’s increasing evidence to suggest that they have real negative burdens for society, creating an addictive environment that increases polarization and undermines truth.
Examining social networks this way opens creative opportunities to reframe the problem and innovate so that we as designers can attempt to mitigate downside impact to a level where we at least “do no harm.” It surfaces questions like: How might we improve the community-building promise of social networking so that it might lead to positive societal impact? How might we create bridging social capital between diverse points of view to counteract tendencies for online forums to spark misunderstanding?
2. Identify who wins and loses.
In order to design responsibly, we must understand how benefits and burdens of policies, products, technologies, and businesses are distributed. In short, who or what wins and who or what loses as a result of our design interventions. This is effectively practical ethics.
Understanding who wins and who loses requires understanding the various constituencies of stakeholders impacted by a specific design and developing empathy for their perspectives. The hard work is deciding when a group’s grievance meets a moral standard worthy of consideration.
For example, say you’re working at a ride-hailing company. You’ve got the company’s economic considerations balanced against the interests of passengers. When you take a structured approach to mapping impacted stakeholders, you quickly discover this simplistic view is insufficient. Primary stakeholders in this example include the interests of drivers and passengers, but the needs of both are not homogeneous — they can be further divided by class, race, situation, context, age, gender, and so on. We must also not forget secondary stakeholders who are essential to the success of the service but not primary to it: people in charge of hiring drivers, customer support, driver support, or more broadly gas stations, etc. The third category of stakeholders are those impacted by the service in a tangible way but not customers, ride-hail drivers, or employees: other professional drivers, commuters, locals, city planners trying to plan infrastructure, politicians trying to promote public transportation investments, and so forth.
Why must stakeholder consideration extend so far? Research suggests that ride-hailing services are the most significant contributor to growing traffic congestion in major cities (despite the companies’ claims to the contrary). Not including the perspectives of impacted stakeholders or mitigating the impact on them is self-serving — even exploitative — and therefore unethical. In my book, that’s irresponsible.
Mapping stakeholders into primary, secondary, and impacted groups can help us empathize with them and understand how we might reconcile competing interests or mitigate unintentional harms from our work.
3. Think in systems, not products.
Aligning stakeholder interests is a powerful model for designing responsibly, but we must back up further to understand if our proposed interventions have any hope of achieving desired outcomes. If we want to understand the positive and negative societal impact of a product or service, we must recognize them as a connected network of causal relationships. Through research, we can start to build a map of these causal relationships that will reveal what is in our sphere of control and what is not.
Ultimately, our goal is to find creative solutions that disrupt systems that are creating negative (often amplification) effects and create more positive outcomes.
A useful systems analogy is that of acupuncture — the precision insertion of needles to try and disrupt human physical and emotional problems. Transition design provides us with beautiful language here: design’s output is ideally a “spectrum of potential interventions” into a system. This phrasing reinforces the idea of placing many bets when trying to intervene in complex problem areas.
Systems mapping is daunting as an activity because doing a thorough job — understanding all the relevant causal relationships and different systems — is incredibly hard, especially in the tight time-frames of fast-running teams. However, even if we only scratch the surface, we can create a visible chain of logic for what we hope to accomplish and avoid inadvertently making things worse. For complex problems (and this seems increasingly true of our work) the sheer scale of operations, market forces, and stakeholders that influence them, create an ecosystem of dependencies that our intuitions as designers can’t comprehend. Without the help of systems mapping, we can’t begin to understand how to craft effective interventions thoughtfully.
4. Explore long-term outcomes.
Responsible design must be considerate of the kind of future our interventions are creating. There are excellent methods like strategic forecasting and outcomes backcasting that can help us see the medium- to long-term impact we desire to bring about. Forecasting is the method that most futurists and strategic planners use to predict a set of scenarios. However, it is limited by being grounded in the realm of what is most probable and possible vs. what is preferable and desirable.
In contrast, backcasting as a methodology starts at a future where the desired impact has been accomplished and challenges us to imagine how that can be achieved. Backcasting is a technique borrowed from the fields of philanthropy, medicine, and education. Say you want an educational outcome to be real for a particular set of stakeholders by a specific date. The essential idea is to create a chain of logic or a program theory to describe how we think those outcomes might be achieved through designed inputs, events, interventions, investments, and steps. The traditional way of describing this is called a results chain, and it relies upon an exceptional understanding of the relevant systemic forces. The strength of these pipelines or chains of logic is how a lot of grant proposals are funded and investment decisions made.
Both forecasting and backcasting techniques are needed together to chart the landscape of the future and plan for the medium to long term. Forecasting can help us stay grounded in probability, but there is no substitute for adopting the perspective of “what if anything were possible,” as the basis for imagining a preferred future state. Far from just being wishful thinking, this is a deliberate way for teams to articulate dreams and fears and work toward an agreed-upon, meaningful accomplishment.
Responsibility: neither a luxury nor a burden
Both practically and philosophically, we are just beginning to explore methods that can help us design more responsibly. I’ve touched on four of eight areas we are using at Artefact to get a handle on how to do better. Let me know in the comments if you’d like to hear more.
“We have to remind ourselves that responsibility is not a luxury you get to tack on — a nice to have. It’s also not a burden you have to carry. It’s always the right thing to ask ourselves how we can do our work most responsibly.”
— Mike Monterio, author of Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World
Designing responsibly isn’t altruism. It is rational, self-interested, and justified by the long-term best interests of a business. Nobody I’ve met in my professional career wants to be irresponsible. There are substantial logical arguments for taking a systemic, stakeholder-aligned, outcomes-focused approach to design and technology. I look forward to seeing our field evolve in a more responsible direction.