Since it’s the start of a new year, I thought it would be good to begin my 2018 essay series with an aspirational message. No, I don’t mean things as silly as resolutions that you won’t keep. I want to talk about the importance of being a designer and making a difference.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen the above tweet (from last year). At the time I definitely felt that Biz and Jack seemed rather unmotivated to deal with a very real problem on their service (they still sort of seem that way to be honest). And not to pile on them, because it affects other services too. I don’t use Facebook (thankfully) and it seems they’re another service with this exact problem. Even worse, it seems they’re looking for new ways to recirculate the same awful social signals with the changes they’re making to their publisher platform algorithm. I don’t think we understand the full extent to which these social media services are being used to actually undermine legitimate democratic elections (or perhaps we do) not just here in the US, but all across the globe.
(Just a few links about it…)
- Facebook said it can’t guarantee that social media is good for democracy via Business Insider
- Facebook admits it might be poisoning democracy via Vanity Fair
- The more Facebook examines itself, the more fault it finds via the Verge
As you can see, it’s a very real problem and for some reason, all us smart people in the Silicon Valley can’t seem to figure out how to address it… Hopefully soon, this topic gets prioritized in their agile backlog.
Anyway after reflecting on my time away from tweetville, one thing that I learned is that all of us, no matter how small we feel we are, we’re given the opportunity to have a positive impact with what we do in our daily lives. And this is what I am referring to when I say that we can make a difference.
The Role of Design
I have seen many portfolios in my time. Lately, the “UX bootcamps” are driving a lot of the latest crop of new designers, many of whom are looking to “get a job in UX”. To be fair, this kind of thing has been going on for a long time, but the bootcamps give it a slightly different twist.
If you’ve never heard of these programs, they’re around 10 weeks long and are meant to be these short intensive curricula that give participants an in-depth look into a given field. They’re great for people who are switching careers, for example, because rather than making a 4-year commitment at a university, you can get most of what you need from a 10-week intensive program.
And don’t get me wrong, I think it’s awesome that people are waking up to the idea that good design matters and that they can contribute, and participating in a bootcamp is a quick way to accomplish something. But there’s something amiss with the work that I’ve seen coming out of those programs.
Usually, the portfolios that I’ve seen essentially have one major piece of design work in them, usually a concept UI for a mobile app. The problem is that the designs are almost 100% pure boilerplate, a 3-5 page initial slideshow, a user account page, a search results page, an app home screen with a 5-tab navigation bar at the bottom. You get the idea. These portfolio reviews are usually followed up with a non-specific question like “What do you think?”
We need meaning.
To be polite, I believe there is a place for this kind of work in the design field. Non-designers need help with all this UI stuff and it’s good that there are places that people can go to learn about how to structure an app and contribute to “the next big thing”. Companies all over the place are adopting these rapid iteration processes to launch quickly. But this kind of “assemblage” design approach is only effective if you understand why those pieces are there in the first place. What if the app didn’t actually need those features? What if the UI doesn’t address the issue? If you’re not thinking critically, it can be easy to head in the wrong direction. To expand a bit more though, we can start to think critically on a larger scale. What I need to start asking is this:
How does what you did move us forward?
I know, I know. It’s probably too much to ask of someone who’s just figuring out what it means to set type on a screen. BUT what these bootcamps don’t seem to teach is critical thinking. And in that regard, it’s never too late to pose these kinds of tough questions, especially to the new grads. It’s important that we all consider our role, and what it means to have the responsibility of crafting a user experience.
How does what you did advance the discipline?
Just because you made the boilerplate app UI stuff, does it really do anything useful? Does it help deepen our understanding of a product in some way? Most importantly, is someone else better off for having used the product the way it was designed?
I don’t mean that we need to start sticking it to new grads at any and every opportunity. But it’s important to realize that the people starting in the field today are those who will inherit our legacy. What do we leave them with?
And let’s be real. I probably couldn’t come up with a good answer for some of these questions myself for some of the projects I’ve worked on, which is exactly part of the problem. We get too comfortable and too complacent with ourselves and we don’t ask hard questions of our own work.
My friend Jon wrote Tragic Design which you should definitely read if you haven’t yet. I would postulate that most of the sad anecdotes come from well-meaning people who also sought “jobs in UX”. If I were to guess, I would think that no one in those stories intentionally set out to do harm. But since those individuals played a more passive role in determining the outcome of their own work, there are now numerous stories of products that resulted in tragic harm to people, to the extent that a book has now been published cataloguing just a few.
In general, Design (yes, with a capital “D”) is an extremely powerful thing. If done well, Design can be used to experience interesting new ideas. If used negatively however, it can be used to manipulate people to do things that perhaps they wouldn’t normally choose (think social engineering and dark patterns). Therefore, we should use our skills and experience to discover ways to create positive experiences that are more meaningful than just fulfilling some boilerplate UI solutions.
Making a difference?
Understandably, not everything has to resolve to some earth-shattering conclusion. Some people might say “there is value in just helping a company make profit. Isn’t that also helping make a difference in people’s lives?”
The short answer is of course it does. Making a successful product that reaches millions of people is an obvious way to have an impact. But I would then say that if you were to succeed on that level, the responsibility is so much greater to do positive things just because the reach you’d have goes that much further.
Furthermore, I am not going to argue that we should not seek out well-paying jobs. We should most definitely be compensated well for what we do. But let’s not conflate helping a company make a profit with making a difference in our communities, or in society — these things have very different implications and it’s far too short-sighted to think that making a company profitable will somehow magically create value for society.
“But Chris, we’re not social workers. We need to make money to keep the lights on! We’re a business after all…”
Yes, of course. I’m not disagreeing with you, and this is exactly what I mean when I say that we shouldn’t conflate making a buck with making a difference. If you just want to make a buck off someone, there’s lots of methods to do that, some are more responsible than others. But committing to make a positive impact and add value to society is the hard work we need to do as a community of professionals and ideally we shouldn’t stop short at just what’s profitable. Thinking critically about our work and asking the hard questions is how we can get there.
Making a difference starts with thinking different. Being willing to abandon conventional thinking is the first step towards actually having a positive impact. That’s why all those boilerplate design solutions you learn in bootcamp aren’t really helping us advance. We don’t benefit by rehashing what’s already known.
Instead, I invite you to challenge yourself to go deeper. Think bigger about what you’re trying doing. There might be solutions out there that, if you just tried to extend your thinking a bit more, might be far more worthy of your time and effort. Stop trying to make “lean” solutions to “fat” problems. Be more willing to explore.
Why bother at all?
Of course that’s the other question: to what end does this matter? Why do we need to have a positive impact on things?
I shared some links at the beginning of the essay that indicate how a product has had a pretty serious negative impact, all around the world. What do we think about that? We might like some of those kinds of products. We might enjoy using them every day. But we can’t ignore the impact that some of those kinds of products have had on societies around the world.
How might we use good design to facilitate better ethics? As one example, Riot Games (maker of the online game League of Legends, a game notorious for a toxic player community) instituted some changes (back in 2013) to their game to help stem the tide of toxicity, prevalent in online games. In fact, one of their developers gave a talk about it at GDC (the Game Developer’s Conference). Check it out:
(it doesn’t seem to be able to embed the video…)
This may seem like a trivial thing (people tend to not take video games seriously). But when you consider that young people are exposed to this behavior in their formative years using the internet, it’s no wonder that many who grow up around those ideas being consistently pressed into them that they adopt those kinds of values in real inter-personal relationships.
Now imagine if more products actually adopted a code of ethics? How might society be changed if they helped promote better inter-personal interactions? The capability exists. In certain social media products we’ve seen certain things censored (that really should be censored) in other countries that have the proper regulations in place. It’s amazing to me that the same products we use on a daily basis have built in the proper logic to restrict access to that kind of content, so we know it’s most definitely possible. Now imagine if those values were just endemic in companies around the world, rather than always needing laws and regulations to impose better ethics?
And what of the personal responsibility of corporate leaders? Of course businesses exist to chase profits. I’m not naive. But these days, is chasing profit enough? What if we held our corporate leaders to a higher standard? How might our communities change if companies gave more back to society than they took? How can our contributions as designers help change the discourse?
In the end the burden is on us. Many of us working in technology today are working on the products and services that people will use tomorrow. What responsibility do we have for what we create and put out in the world? My hope is that we evolve our relationship to technology and begin to do things that help make a difference. Hopefully we’re not too late!
Anyway, I think I’ve ranted on about this enough for one month. 2018 has been a strange year so far and we’re just getting through January. This year, I am committing to things that will help me grow. I am not sure if I will every really get back to the same frequency of use that I had with Twitter. I’ve started using it more lately because of the positive connections that I’ve made. But I think, as a product and what they seem to be doing with it (or not doing with it depending on your perspective) is not something that feels right to me.
In light of all that, I hope that you’ll join me this year to commit to trying to make a difference. Even though some of our “tech leaders” won’t do it, we as individuals can set the right example for each other and celebrate all the good stuff we accomplish this year. Start with asking hard questions of our own work, thinking critically about what we do, and then acting towards the right solution.
Happy new year!