Designers — we are responsible more than ever

Andrei Urse
6 min readMay 1, 2021

Designers are responsible more than ever for their design decisions. Yes, that’s true. We make a huge difference. And I am not talking here only about digital applications, no, I am including here User Experience Designers, User Interface Designer, Industrial Designers, Product Designers, and many other design roles that are out there that impact a product.

There are a lot of books that cover bad design, evil or dark patterns, and let me give you some examples, Tragic Design by Cynthia Savard Saucier and Jonathan Shariat, Evil by Design by Chris Nodder, Ruined by Design by Mike Monteiro, and I think there are many more other books that cover this topic if you know one, please let us know in the comments section.

We also have a documentary that gained traction lately, The Social Dilemma, and this documentary-drama hybrid explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations, according to the description that Netflix provides to us.

I encountered bad design a lot of times, when I filled the gas tank of my car, I felt like an idiot not knowing how to use that gas station, because I had to press the yellow DEL button to select cash payment (?!?!?!), or when I didn’t know how to open a door at my office (Don Norman you were right about pretty doors), or when I use the self-checkout at the supermarket and it sucks the energy out of me because of the bugs and stupid interactions when the weighting machine doesn’t weight a very light product, and I have to ask for help and this translates in me looking stupid as a user, but there is more than just usability issues.

It’s clear we have some awareness about what’s happening because of bad, tragic, or evil design, but I think it’s more important to analyze what the overall population of designers is doing to fix this problem, and from my perspective… we are doing nothing. And let me explain to you why.

It’s all about money

Facebook had a hard time when the Cambridge Analytica scandal went public. Mark Zuckerberg was summoned in front of the congress, he was asked a lot of tough questions for him and his business, he avoided answering some of them, in the end, we had a very interesting video of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress, a lot of memes, and… that’s it!

Mark Zuckerberg is still the CEO, Facebook is doing just fine, I didn’t hear of any designer, developer, QA or any other role resigning from Facebook because he felt like the values and principles are not in line with what Facebook does. Facebook still has 52,535 no. of employees (June 30, 2020) according to Google, and every each of them receives a ton of money for being there and working for a product that is doing shady stuff with our data. Do they feel guilty? I don’t know.

Then why are they still working for Facebook if they know that the business model is manipulating people, is using the data in a very unethical way? Is not like this is a secret, it’s in plain sight. The answer might be money. They get paid, they have a job, they have a decent life, they just don’t care what Facebook does. People go to the 9 to 5 job and that’s it, they simply don’t care.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a ton of other products or industries that produce incredible bad products besides Facebook, like e-cigars, the alcohol industry, the gambling industry, and the list can continue. Cigars and e-cigars kill, alcohol kills, gambling does a lot of trouble, and what do people that work for these products do? E-cigars don’t get created out of thin air, there are industrial designers that work to create such a product, developers that create software for the cigars and the apps associated with them, testers, managers, and graphic designers that create those pretty appealing ads, newsletters and any other graphic element they do to influence people starting to smoke. Do they feel guilty because people get in trouble? I don’t think so.

Milgram experiment

Let me ask you something: who is responsible for dropping the atomic bombs in 1945, the pilot that flew the plane, the generals or any other authority that said to drop the bomb, or the creators of the bomb (the scientists)? Who is to blame and who should feel guilty?

It’s called the Milgram experiment, and in summary, it says that people obey an authority, even if they do harm to others. In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock, and all administered shocks of at least 300 volts.

So let’s get back to our context, designers, developers, managers, and so on, although they know they work for a product or industry that does harm to others (drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling addiction, etc.), they still continue to do so, and as mentioned above we have a lot of examples.

It’s because an authority is telling them what to do, they get paid to live a decent life, therefore they don’t feel guilty or any remorse, exactly what the Milgram experiments are basically showing us. And there are a lot of young people that don’t care about this, they start an internship at a company, get a salary, get brainwashed and then start to really believe in those values and principles that the company has, they really start to believe that e-cigars do less harm than normal cigars for example! It’s crazy! This is even how e-cigars are advertised in my country!

Gambling machines, e-cigars, crazy algorithms that manipulate people, they are not created out of nothing, they are all created by people that work for these products, it’s our fault, because of us people get harmed, go bankrupt, buy stupid things we never need, get lungs cancer and the list can continue. Bad products are created by us, we all contribute to this by accepting to get money to design bad stuff.

Conclusion — what to do?

I heard a lot of people talking about ethics in design, how the world is broken, how the society is broken, there were documentaries like The Social Dilemma, Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress video, we have all it needs to know what happens around us, and to realize that actually, people did this, not robots, not God, nobody else but us. We built bad products.

Our society is based on money and power, if you don’t have the money you basically die sooner or later, so what do you choose? To work for a company that harms people and get paid a ton of cash for that, or dream to work for an ethical company and save the world, but die in the meantime? I know, I exaggerated, but this is the reality more or less. People want money, they want it now, and the vast majority will ignore everything else for money. That’s a fact.

As a conclusion, we are responsible more than ever for our design decisions and for what kind of products or industries we accept to work. Keep in mind that together, as a group, we have the power to make a change in the world, and it’s our responsibility to do it, instead of just waiting for the change to happen out of nowhere.

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