A few weeks ago we attended Ironhack workshops on a regenerative design by pioneer design anthropologist and founder of Give a Shit, Laura Korčulanin. The workshops had an emphasis on how to use design to restore, renew or revitalise, and to design for all life. We’ve had the opportunity to once again join workshops by Korčulanin, this time with a focus on ethics in design. With the workshops in question as a basis, we have written a summary of the importance of designing responsibly and preparing toolkits for ethical UX.
Planned obsolescence in design
Before looking into how to design responsibly, a starting point is to look at how a lot of products are designed today. One early statement in the workshop by Korčulanin is that design is often based on planned and perceived obsolescence. According to the Oxford dictionary, planned obsolescence is “a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing, achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of non-durable materials”. It is something a lot of us can recognise. The idea or assumption that we need a new phone because a phone can simply not last longer than a few years is an example of that.
Korčulanin shared an article on the topic that investigated the truth behind this. It asks the question of whether companies are creating artificial life spans to get repeat sales. It turns out that they are, but the author argues that businesses give consumers the products they want, and “planned obsolescence serves as a reflection of a ravenous consumer culture”. Design informs our behaviour and we inform design, so everything is in constant interaction and for this, we can learn how to plan design to create positive benefits from the conceptual phase. Especially considering that the E-waste is one of the most growing types of waste, according to Korčulanin. That’s where the cause and effect thinking enters the conversation.
Cause and effect
Designing products or services that meet the consumer’s wants and needs is essential, but Korčulanin stresses that we need to remember that whatever our intention is, it is important to consider the impact and the life cycle of the products, services, and solutions we are suggesting. Therefore we need to apply a systemic vision based on cause and effect thinking. Research from Imperial College in London showed that downloading just one gigabyte requires 200 liters of water because water is needed to cool the massive data centers that search engines and websites use to power their internet services. This implies that even when creating digital services, having a cause and effect thinking of the systemic impact is crucial.
In our article about regenerative design, we wrote about nature entering every step of the research process when designing for all life. Korčulanin added that ethics as well need to have a constant presence in the research process. When designing a service or a product we need to evaluate it with certain values in mind.
Another thing to consider is if the user has autonomy in the decision-making process as we as users should be in control of technology and not the other way around. Do we equip the user with sufficient and relevant information to make a good decision? Korčulanin exemplified this with services like Airbnb that give access to leave reviews and read reviews in order to make informed decisions.
Safety and emotional well-being are also crucial to consider when developing a new product or service. To take actions that ensure that the developed platforms do not help or encourage the spread of any form of hatred.
Furthermore, we need to be loyal to our users. Loyalty is shown by being present throughout the user journey, to guide and educate our users.
Finally, the truth. Is our product or service helping to spread misinformation or fake news? If the answer is yes, we need to redesign and implement mechanisms to flag the behaviour.
Although the UX ethics are fundamental guidelines to follow, you can also map out more specific ones adapted to your own design. This is called value mapping, according to Korčulanin. Value mapping starts off with stating your design. Secondly, you move on to stating your most important values. Finally, you do a mapping of your concerns and try to form an understanding of how your design is conditioning and enabling. By following this process, you will have a map to guide you with regards to improving your products and services to be more ethical.
Toolkits for designing responsibly
Korčulanin shared a few resources that will enable any designer to create more ethical products and services. A useful resource is this toolkit by Design Ethically. Another useful model is Maslow’s pyramid of ethical design which is the central part of the ethical design manifesto. It emphasizes respect as a goal on every level when designing products and services. Respect for human rights, respect for human efforts, and respect for human experience.
It might seem like a lot to consider when planning to design products or services in an ethical way, but having a mindset rooted in respect will take your team a long way. Although there are some fundamental values to consider, remember that you can map out the values that matter to your team the most and ensure to follow them. The only way design will go forward is in an ethical way, and every small step in an ethical direction is a step into the right direction.