Designing for good?

Who is responsible for the ethical outcomes of our designs?

Image for post

The user is the centre of the design universe

Right now, the user is the centre of the design universe. If it’s not good for the user, it’s not good enough. But a recent experience on a UX design project left me wondering:

Who should we be designing for?

Currently I’m part of a design project looking at the user experience for a social enterprise. Our research is exploring how users respond to ‘social procurement’ and ‘social enterprise’.

During a playback session on our user research, a conversation emerged about the differences between ‘charity’ and ‘social procurement’. Some users interviewed had a strong aversion to social procurement. They told us “charity starts at home” and “I don’t want it forced down my throat.”

This surprised me.

It’s like they thought the business doing good in the world somehow reduced the value they received. They wanted to keep their business and their charity separate.

Money can be pretty powerful and with the volume of spend that occurs world wide, if businesses choose to donate some of that money, or better yet, spend some of that money on resources that are more sustainable, inclusive or otherwise socially responsible, how can we criticise that?

But these users didn’t value that. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about these causes, but they wanted the control over where their money went. Perhaps their own experiences with charities and what happens to their donations limited their ability to connect to social enterprises’ causes. That is what it is and only experience will change this for them.

But here is the challenge for us as designers: if we believe we have a role to play in impacting society, do we need to reconsider where we centre our design focus? Do we design out things that cause users frustration, if they serve some greater purpose?

If it’s good for the user, it good enough?

The social limitations to UCD

Humans are biased. Businesses, public figures and my friends are talking about eliminating unconscious bias in policy, in performance reviews, in opportunities. And current events constantly remind us, if we allow ourselves to be reminded: conscious bias still exists and impacts many.

And if humans are biased, this means users are biased. They want different things to their neighbours. They evaluate the decisions they make first on how it impacts them, and often, second how it impacts others.

Is it our responsibility as designers to design out every human bias and use our designs to transform everyone into humanitarians? Probably not.

Even to the extent that we might take on that challenge, it’s a very tall ask: We have to overcome our own biases. And even if we can design to challenge bias, we’re competing against other products that don’t challenge our users’ biases. These products may serve a similar need without the discomfort of the bias conversation. Which do you think the user will pick when they’re looking for a ‘delightful’ experience?

This is part of a much bigger discourse about societal values, and certainly something a 1,500 word article on Medium is not going to solve. But I believe part of the first step is to consider what other approaches could we use.

What else could be our guiding star at the centre of our design universe?

The importance of the ‘S’

Another approach that designers, such as Michael Shur, are starting to talk about is ‘value-centred design’. This is the concept of augmenting UCD by looking at not just how an experience makes someone feel but also what value they get from it. In a value exchange, the user receives something they value, which will then hopefully motivate them to hand over something the business values, needs or wants.

Perhaps this approach is part of the answer. Does UberEats just design for making food look as desirable as possible, and make it as easy to order as possible? Or could we re-design it for a deeper value exchange that may matter to, for example, the person that wants to lose weight.

Even if we’re looking at a user’s deeper values, we’re still putting the user at the centre.

Values-centred design

What if we add a little ‘s’ to that term to make ‘values-centred design’? To me this speaks of a different concept: design centred around how each interaction between the user and a product can address both the user’s values and the values held by the other parties impacted by the interaction.

Different parties have different ways of receiving and measuring value. To use values-centred design, we would need to capture this broader set of values and measures to use as the checkpoint for whether our design meets requirement.

Value sets and where they fit in UCD

User-centred design captures the values of users, if it even runs that deep. User interviews often capture how users feel in the moment and, because it’s not our job to tell the user if they are ‘right’ or wrong’, sometimes there is no opportunity to address unconscious or conscious biases. We may ask what users’ values are, but do we assess whether their actions align? Often these two things are out of sync.

The business perspective is often also considered in the UCD process. When budgets, business goals and business values are applied to the process of accepting or rejecting the insights that come out of user research, this is the business values lens. Again, businesses have their own biases. For example, our research showed that, like individuals, businesses had charities and causes they supported, and they weren’t keen to take up another cause.

Other values such as society and environment might also be brought in using UCD. But to what extent is this a conscious process? Or are these values only brought to the fore when they’re embedded in the business’ values? Or perhaps when they are the designers own values and drive them to tend in one direction or another with their ideation?

That’s only four sets of values. What about ethics? And what about other concepts that are valued now, or may become valued in the future?

Not to mention the subjectivity involved in determining what is valuable within each of those categories. I was trying to think of an example of a ‘universal value’ for this article. But for everything I considered (at least everything I was willing to broach in an article about design methodologies), I could think of an alternative view point.

Image for post

Just some of the value perspectives we may need to consider

Phew. That’s a lot to think about.

Applying ‘values-centred design’ would require us to wrestle with ideas such as how we can hold in tension or resolve differences between different value sets. This means trade-offs. It might also mean subjecting the user to frustration — value-laden frustration, that pushes them toward an action that aligns with deeper values.

And as we wrestle with that, perhaps it might become clear that an evenly segmented circle isn’t the best way to think about values-centred design. Perhaps in some contexts, the user does take up a bigger share of the decision criteria. In other contexts, society or ethics might be more important.

Call to consider

Right now values-centred design is just a concept I’m beginning to wrestle with as a new designer. By no means do I have claim to the answers, or even evidence this isn’t an approach some or many designers use.

But right now I’m enjoying considering questions like:

Are we responsible for considering other values? What would this alternative methodology look like? What tools and processes would we apply to incorporate these broader perspectives? Can UCD on it’s own result in the best design decisions?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

#humancentred #servicedesign #uxdesign