Look around you

Illustration of three birds with their heads in the sand, a fourth not but look around in alarm.
Illustration: Geri Coady.

If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that while designers have an amazing ability to change the world, it may not always be for the better.

As we approach the end of this decade of digital decadence, a period of political turmoil and societal change has tested many of our most benign assumptions. Persuasive design is no longer talked about with the naivety it once was, while some now question the virtues of seamless, frictionless experiences that reduce user agency and dissuade us from taking a moment to pause. Aesthetic considerations need to compete with more ethical concerns, with decoration and delight making way for questions about privacy and accessibility. Yet at the heart of our profession remains user-centred design and the myth that to design for everyone is to design for no one.

With the results of this approach writ large, it has become clear that focusing on one group to the exclusion of others makes it easier to ignore the secondary effects of our work. Looking to demonstrate their value, designers have been eager to celebrate high-growth companies with a laser-like focus on the consumer. But while Airbnb created a product expertly tailored to the traveller’s every need, the company displayed a breathless arrogance toward those affected by it, especially the communities hollowed out by an abundance of short-term lets and increased rents. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft made ordering taxis effortless, but a recent study discovered that these services add 2.6 vehicle miles to city traffic for every 1 mile of personal driving removed (turns out people will dismiss marginally less convenient options like walking or cycling when they can hail a taxi to complete a short journey). And how often is it the case that workers providing the service are the ones left shouldering the risks while reaping few of the rewards?

For all their claims of changing the world, it would seem designers have not only failed to address its more pressing problems, but exaggerated many of its existing ones. Sure, it’s easier than ever to book a table at your favourite restaurant in San Francisco, or get a pizza delivered to your door, but income inequality has increased exponentially. Already polluted cities are now populated with empty taxis while climate change continues to reduce the diversity of our biosphere and threaten the survival of our own species.

Clearly our existing methods of innovation aren’t working. Yet at this decisive point in the human story, when a collective view of the world is required, our industry has chosen to look inward, focusing instead on our tools and processes – on ourselves.

Fitter, happier, more productive

The desire to improve our own environment is human nature, yet we already work in an industry that tends to lavish its employees, if not with impressive salaries and free lunches, then themed meeting rooms and indoor slides. Have we become too comfortable, too compliant, even?

This trend towards self-indulgence can be summed up in two words: developer experience. This is the idea that investing in the whims and wants of developers allows them to build faster and cheaper, thus helping them deliver a better product – eventually. The excitement developers exhibit towards new technology can be infectious, but a magpie-like behaviour sees them flit and flirt from one framework to another, abandoning what’s been tried and tested, and throwing scorn on anything perceived as outdated. And there’s always another developer-focused feature to implement before the user experience can be addressed. As the complexity of digital software grows and the size of websites increases (weighed down by client-side libraries and privacy-invading scripts), it’s safe to say this argument amounts to little more than trickle-down ergonomics.

And now designers are getting in on the act. Concerned with order and beauty, and with a low tolerance for inconsistency and a penchant for unachievable perfection, efforts are now expended on the creation of all-encompassing design systems. An honest appraisal would acknowledge that the intended audience for these is not the customer but their colleagues. After all, a user focused on achieving a particular task is unlikely to notice a few stray pixels or inconsistent padding.

Designers were meant to be the ones looking outwards, understanding customers’ needs and communicating their findings using personas, journeys, maps and stories. Integrated into engineering processes that push for efficiency and measurement, these tools have been manipulated and contorted to such an extent that they serve only to delude, promoting the idea that users’ best interests are being served while internal measures of success are privileged. Much like world trade, the effectiveness of empathy is a product of proximity. Sat in an office interacting with our colleagues (yet not those in distant warehouses or on the front line) and with little day-to-day contact with customers, a disconnect is forged.

What we do see, often looks a lot like us. Our community is suffocated by a lack of diversity, not only in the countless ways we are slowly starting to comprehend, but also thanks to the narrow providence of the ideas shaping our work. Lacking a culture of independent critique typical of other creative professions like film and architecture, few seem willing or able to challenge the toxic orthodoxy behind the handful of American companies exerting the most influence. And so DevOps begat DesignOps, DesignOps begat ResearchOps, each specialism competing to commoditize its expertise in order to prove its worth to business leaders who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.

Onwards and outwards

How might we change course? First, we need space for critical voices and those willing to question the industry’s boundless optimism. We need authors willing to quell our tool fetishism and instead encourage us to question and interrogate new approaches and ideas.

As we consider the role of user-centred design, might systems thinking help us to better understand the interconnectedness of the things we build, and identify how they relate not only to our target audience, but broader society as well?

In seeking examples of a more inclusive approach, I look to advocates of web accessibility. Having studied the principles of universal design, they speak about this vital work as being an integral part of the design process rather than a box-ticking exercise needed to satisfy disability law. I think about websites like GOV.UK and its designers who, having acknowledged that their audience was everyone, discarded beautiful yet meaningless iconography and other decoration to deliver something that simply worked.

Our ability to visualize and make things is a great gift, but we need to acknowledge that this privilege brings with it immense responsibilities. Rather than limit our imaginations to idealized versions of the future, we should consider less desirable outcomes and use these to help us correct course earlier in the design process. This may often involve saying no, being obstructive, and removing terms like ‘edge case’ from our vocabulary. Such changes may slow us down, but given the damage already left in our wake, maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

The original version of this article was commissioned for New Adventures magazine, January 2019.