Do designers have an ethical responsibility toward their users? It’s a question that designers struggle with, as the products and interfaces they help bring into the world can have unintended consequences, from spreading fake news to exacerbating mental health problems. Even tech luminary and Nest founder Tony Fadell has expressed regret about the products he brought into the world.
But for Matt Webb, managing director of R/GA’s IoT Venture Studio in the U.K. and founder of the now-defunct influential London-based design studio Berg, the conversation about ethics is focused on the wrong question: How can you talk about ethics if designers aren’t the ones making decisions about how products and interfaces work in the first place?
“The gap between what the designer creates and what the people who use it actually touch has gotten really big,” Webb says. That’s a problem because designers are trained to base their work on empathy for the user and the user’s needs. When products and interfaces are persuasive, engaging, and maybe even psychologically manipulative, they haven’t been designed with empathy. They’ve been designed to be so user-friendly that they take advantage of the user’s weaknesses.
This is a unique problem of the software age. Historically, design was about making physical things, whether it be office chairs or album covers. Now, designers are coders–or at least working within the constraints of code–typing inputs into a computer that conjure up an interface that lives across millions of screens.
That shift has occurred in tandem with a new design process. Designers create the parameters that dictate interfaces, which are then A/B tested and optimized based on how users interact with them. (Designers have always done user testing, of course, but it’s much harder to change a physical object than it is a piece of code.) Now, the constant tweaking of software creates a never ending design process, where every click is another piece of data to optimize. “The thing that generates the most money or that people use the most wins,” he says. “So who actually designed that?”
One example: the Amazon Echo ecosystem, which consists of “skills” that other companies and individuals can create so users can access their products through the Echo. Designers of these skills–which can do things like give you a recipe, guard your secrets, and even tell you about the flat Earth conspiracy–work within constraints so that their skill fits within the Echo interface. But there’s no guarantee of the quality or usefulness of any of the 15,000 skills that the Echo currently offers–the only measure is popularity. “It’s more like a scaffolding [where] loads of creators can throw an interface at the wall and see what’s most popular,” he says. “And then that’s what everyone uses. Who’s actually designed that user interface?”
Engagement becomes the chief metric, and just because something holds someone’s attention doesn’t mean it’s good for the user. Take the Facebook Newsfeed, which has arguably been optimized to hold your attention within an inch of its life. Facebook boasts that its users spend an average of 50 minutes on its various platforms per day. But the same algorithms that enable this incredible amount of user engagement also enable sensationalist fake news to spread like wildfire. The problem was so bad during the lead-up to the 2016 election that it may have contributed to Donald Trump’s win.
Call it a design paradox: More than ever before, designers are sitting on the C-suite of companies. Large corporations are investing in design because it makes good business sense, both through hiring and through “innovation labs” that have become a crucial part of how companies grow and adapt. But as design has become integrated into the heart of companies, Webb believes there has been–ironically–an unintended consequence. Designers themselves, beholden to business interests that demand the most optimized, most persuasive version of something as opposed to the most useful and helpful for the user, have decreased agency. In other words, with power has come less responsibility. “Designers have less control over what they put out, in some cases,” he says.
Webb likens this conundrum to how engineering as a discipline has evolved. Engineers used to be the only ones who made the devices and appliances that people used, but as more things have become integrated into the internet, engineers now also create the constraints of systems–whether they’re game systems or AI systems–and a fully optimized world emerges within. These engineers, who Webb calls “the debuggers, the AI whisperers, the people who know how to do the robot psychology of the future,” no longer code the systems. They code the code that builds the system.
Webb sees a similar trajectory within design. Design as a whole has greater influence over organizations–even as it has ceded agency over the intricacies of interfaces to optimization and A/B testing. As Webb put it, “individual designers can wield the supply chains of China.” But that also has made it harder for designers “to deliberately create something which is going to have the effect that we want.”
What does this mean for designers? If they have little power in this ecosystem where A/B testing and optimization are the kings of the hill, what is their true responsibility? What ethics should designers adopt, if any, if they don’t have the power to deliberately create things that will actually serve users? Can designers keep their position of power within organizations while maintaining their agency? What does a revised design process for the digital era look like? Do chief design officers have a role to play? How can organizations address this problem?
These are not easy questions and Webb doesn’t pretend to have answers, but we’d love to hear what you think. Tell us your thoughts at CoDTips@fastcompany.com.