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The Latest Way To Avoid A Major Design Screwup? Tarot Cards

Artefact’s new low-fi tool gives designers a fun way to ask hard questions.

Design may not be solely responsible for technology’s negative effects on society, but it is complicit. There’s the obvious stuff, like dark patterns that try to manipulate users into behaving a certain way. There are also more innocuous-seeming designs, like interfaces built to maximize user engagement, which have had some devastating, if unintended, consequences.

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So how can designers prevent these problems–or at least start to grapple with the ethics of their work?

[Photo: Aaron Gaponoff/courtesy Artefact]

Seattle-based design agency Artefact has developed a deck of cards, modeled after fortune-telling tarot cards, that present questions people who are developing technology should ask themselves during the design process. The Tarot Cards of Tech, as they’re aptly called, are meant to be conversation starters that can apply to any industry, any type of technology, and any product.

To make the cards accessible, each topic has a personification. The Backstabber represents the question, “What could cause people to lose trust in your product?” The BFFs ask designers to ponder, “If two friends use your product, how could it enhance or detract from their relationship?” The Radio Star is on the back of the card that asks, “Who or what disappears if your product is successful?”

[Image: courtesy Artefact]

These are tough questions, and very few tools exist, beyond assorted manifestos and codes of ethics, to help designers grapple with them. Artefact knows from experience. The agency’s designers were having a hard time asking them with their own clients. Something as lighthearted as a tarot card can soften the edge of difficult questions.

The cards are online and available to anyone–you can request a PDF through the studio’s website, and Artefact has printed hard copies to use in its own design process. “It feels like something you can bring into a workshop,” says Sheryl Cababa, an executive creative director at Artefact. “The personification of these big issues allows it to surface in a way that feels like it’s not just us saying everything is going to go wrong for your product.”

[Photo: courtesy Artefact]

The tarot cards also imply a bigger stance Artefact is taking when it comes to technology ethics: namely, that designers are responsible for them, and even more crucially, that design as a discipline has been failing users. “Most designers don’t think beyond the direct benefit of use,” Cababa says. “We’re good at accepting the context of the primary user, but what we’re realizing is that we have to understand the implications of scale, usage, and impact. Human-centered design assumes that by addressing the individual user you’ll create an inherently positive product.”

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[Image: courtesy Artefact]
That hasn’t proven to be the case. The technology industry as a whole has been embroiled in scandals since the election, when it came to light that Facebook, Google, and Twitter helped spread misinformation, Twitter in particular exacerbated online harassment, and YouTube exposed children to extremist content and bizarre, machine-made videos.

Cababa’s favorite card is the Backstabber. “[In design], it’s hard for us to take a step back and say, ‘How could this go wrong and result in people distrusting us?'” Cababa says. “It feels like a core question right now with the current climate of tech.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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