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Brighton, England

Hostage Situation

Anyone who knows me, knows there are certain words guaranteed to elicit fervour and exasperation. Words like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Uber, you know the sort. Words that are even more frustrating when they accompany the names of people I respect – sometimes even friends.

Rather than resort to passionate but otherwise ill-considered rants, I want to dig into my consternation further. Beyond the well reported controversies, what is it about these companies that animates me so much? My experience working in Silicon Valley has undoubtedly informed my perspective, but still, I remain profoundly curious: why do good people choose to work for evil companies?

Asked to be more specific, I would take ‘good people’ to mean talented and thoughtful designers (and engineers), in particular those who are well regarded within the industry. As to ‘evil companies’, let’s say corporations known to employ deceitful and dishonest tactics, some of which can be thoroughly unethical in their pursuit of a Randian dystopia. This is not a new phenomenon; the mad men who advertised cigarettes is an example from our not too distant past. I’d basically like to understand man’s inhumanity to man, and then make a programme about it.

My friend Mario answered my query with one word: “impact”. By choosing to work at a company with billions of users, a designer can find that rarest of opportunities; the ability to affect change on a global scale. I’m reminded of an encounter I had with a Facebook designer at XOXO six years ago, who excitedly told me about the few pixels he’d changed on the Like button. This isn’t how I’d choose to get my kicks, but each to their own, I guess.

Maybe these designers believe that the respect and admiration they’ve garnered will provide leverage, and allow them to change how a company operates; better to be inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in, right? Well, short of burning down the entire piss-drenched campsite. To think you can change an organisation like Facebook – whose leadership has displayed scant regard for the human race beyond its eyeballs – you’re either incredibly naive, or lying to yourself.

In fact, I’d argue that joining such an organisation makes it easier for its culture to seep outwards, into the broader community. For example, sat within large distributed teams, designing products used by billions, employees become advocates for processes and tools that have an emphasis on scalability; an aspect of lesser importance for those of us working beyond the campus walls.

In Subverted Design, Joel Califa wonders if corporate designers – a distinction I’d not seen before, but let’s run with it – slowly shift their priorities as seniority is attained by having a willingness to pursue business objectives at the expense of users:

Today, Designers who are too idealistic and push for things to be “perfect” for their users — sometimes making them more difficult to work with — are perceived as Junior. As a Designer becomes more Senior, they also become more realistic and business-minded, or so the idea goes. These Senior Designers understand that a company is a company, and that the money paying your salary has to come from somewhere.

It was very easy to buy into this, and I did so wholeheartedly. My changing priorities were just a sign of my becoming more experienced, right? What’s more, this change in priorities came with a noticeable shift in how others treated me. The way I was thinking now aligned more closely with PMs and leaders, and that garnered respect. Respect feels good and is generally an indicator that you’re on the right track.

So on the one hand, we had a set of priorities that came with prestige and aligned with what the industry saw as important. On the other, we could be framed as inexperienced or childish. It wasn’t a hard choice.

With that choice, project goals became increasingly centered around company needs rather than user needs. Our language changed to better communicate with stakeholders. Words like “polish” and “value” gave way to “adoption” or “engagement” or “platform cohesion.” It’s laughably easy to rationalize that these things are good for users too.

I found Joel’s insight fascinating. While it doesn’t answer my question about why people choose to join these companies, it goes some way to explain what can happen once they arrive.

Since using their website had a visceral effect on my heart rate, has become another of my trigger words. Jeremy wonders if A/B testing has become so institutionalised, that its designers now confuse customer satisfaction with conversion rates:

I think A/B testing is a way to institutionalise a focus on business goals – increasing sales, growth, conversion, and all of that. Now, ideally, those goals would align completely with the customer’s goals; happy customers should mean more sales …but more sales doesn’t necessarily mean happy customers. Using business metrics (sales, growth, conversion) as a proxy for customer satisfaction might not always work …and is clearly not the case with many of these kinds of sites. Whatever the company values might say, a company’s true focus is on whatever they’re measuring as success criteria. If that’s customer satisfaction, then the company is indeed customer-focused. But if the measurements are entirely about what works for sales and conversions, then that’s the real focus of the company.

Designers like to talk about how they finally have a seat at the table. It’s an attractive idea, especially since companies have started to build internal design teams rather than outsource to agencies. But sometimes it feels as if designers have been tricked into thinking they have a seat, when in fact they’ve been taken hostage, only to develop Stockholm syndrome.

What will it take for the shackles to be released? Joel thinks corporate designers can take a moment to repent for their sins before again pledging allegiance to their users. A tad optimistic perhaps, given the bubble they find themselves in. Perhaps even more so since the industry’s discourse can tend toward the shallow and superficial, and where appraisal often takes the form of unthoughtful take-downs written to boast a critic’s own following.

Khoi Vinh suspects this lack of balanced, thoughtful and independent analysis is why corporate designers have lost sight of their purpose:

Amid all the focus on clicks, no one bothers to wonder: Is what was designed actually in the long-term interests of its users? Does it model healthy or unhealthy interactions and behaviors? Does it strengthen the long-term relationship between the brand and its customers? How does it contribute to the way people relate to technology, media, and to one another? Is the design aesthetically good or bad? And why?

Combine that reticence with the lack of independent voices looking thoughtfully at the work we do and the result is not just an industry that avoids tough questions, but also one that effectively limits its own potential.

Encouraging the development of independent critical journalism about web design may seem high-minded – and without the will and the funding, impossible to achieve. Still, it’s one of few ideas I’ve seen that could free designers from the situation they’ve found themselves. Like the companies they work for, corporate designers need regulating too.