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A Dao of Product Design

When a designer or developer sets out to create a new product, the audience is thought of as “the user”: we consider how she might use it, what aspects make it accessible and usable, what emotional interactions make it delightful, and how we can optimize the workflow for her and our benefit. What is rarely considered in the process is the social and societal impact of our product being used by hundreds of thousands—even millions—of people every day.

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What a product does to people psychologically, or how it has the power to transform our society, is hard to measure but increasingly important. Good products improve how people accomplish tasks; great products improve how society operates. If we don’t practice a more sustainable form of product design, we risk harmful side effects to people and society that could have been avoided.

The impact of product design decisions

In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the U.S. Interstate Highway Act into law. Inspired by Germany’s Reichsautobahnen, Eisenhower was determined to develop the cross-country highways that lawmakers had been discussing for years.

During the design of this interstate network, these “open roads of freedom” were often routed directly through cities, intentionally creating an infrastructural segregation that favored affluent neighborhoods at the expense of poor or minority neighborhoods. Roads became boundaries, subtly isolating residents by socioeconomic status; such increasingly visible distinctions encouraged racist views and ultimately devastated neighborhoods. The segmentation systematically diminished opportunities for those residents, heavily impacting people of color and adversely shaping the racial dynamics of American society.

Such widespread negative consequences are not limited to past efforts or malicious intentions. For example, the laudable environmental effort to replace tungsten street lamps with sustainable LEDs is creating a number of significant health and safety problems because the human impact when applied at scale was not thought through sufficiently.

In each example, we see evidence of designers who didn’t seriously consider the long-term social and moral impacts their work might have on the very people they were designing for. As a result, people all around suffered significant negative side effects.

The ur-discipline

Although the process is rarely identified as such, product design is the oldest practiced discipline in human history. It is also one of the most under-examined; only in relatively recent times have we come to explore the ways products exist in the context they impact.

Designers often seek to control the experience users have with their product, aiming to polish each interaction and every detail, crafting it to give a positive—even emotional—experience to the individual. But we must be cautious of imbalance; a laser focus on the micro can draw attention and care away from the macro. Retaining a big-picture view of the product can provide meaning, not only for the user’s tasks, but for her as a person, and for her environment.

Dieter Rams’s ninth principle says that good design is environmentally friendly; it is sustainable. This is generally interpreted to mean the material resources and costs involved in production, but products also affect the immaterial: the social, economic, and cognitive world the user inhabits while considering and using the product.

At a high level, there is an easy way to think about this: your product and your users do not exist in a vacuum. Your algorithms are not fair or neutral. Your careful touch is not pristine.

Your life experiences instill certain values and biases into your way of thinking. These, in turn, color your design process and leave an imprint behind in the product. It’s essentially the DNA of your decisions, something embedded deeply in the fabric of your work, and visible only under extremely close inspection.

Unlike our DNA, we can consciously control the decisions that shape our products and strive to ensure they have a positive impact, even the myriad subtle and non-obvious ways we might not anticipate. Let’s learn to solve the problems we can’t yet see when designing our products.

Design for inclusion

When we set out to design a product, we generally have a target audience in mind. But there are distinctions between functional target audiences and holistic ones. To create products that embrace long-term positive impacts, we must embrace inclusive thinking as comprehensively as we can.

Conduct research into racial and gender politics to broaden your awareness of the social structures that impact your customers’ lives. These structures alter people’s priorities and affect their decision-making process, so design for as many social and societal considerations as possible. Sometimes people who fall outside the “target audience” are overlooked simply because their priorities for your product come in second place in their lives. Design your product to bridge such gaps, rather than ignoring them.

Listen to the voices of people expressing concern and learn to see the pain points they experience, even if they don’t articulate them as such. Step up to your responsibilities as a designer, curator, entrepreneur, or platform owner. You may not be an elected official, but when you offer products you still have responsibility over the roles they play in people’s lives and experiences—so govern accordingly.

Read studies that examine human psychology to understand how people’s biases may be exacerbated by your product. Learn about microaggressions so you can consciously design around them. Extrapolate how people with nefarious goals—from hackers to authoritarian governments—could exploit or abuse your features or the data you collect.

Work with data and let it inform you, but remember that data is suggestive, not authoritative; the data we gather is always a myopic subset of the entirety that exists but cannot possibly be measured. Enrich your process and viewpoint with information, but let your heart drive your design process.

These principles are more than “nice-to-haves”—they help you design with an ethical and moral code as inherent throughout the product as the design system used to build it.

Foster positivity and civility

When we use a product frequently, the DNA of its design process can leave a psychological imprint on us. Facebook knows it can affect people’s moods by putting more positive items in their feeds. When news broke that it did so, people were upset about this manipulation. In actuality, our lives are constantly being manipulated by algorithms anyway; we’re just not very conscious of it. Often, even the people who designed the algorithms aren’t conscious of the deeper manipulative impacts.

Features like upvotes and downvotes may seem like a balanced solution for people to express opinions, but the downvote’s only purpose is to feed and perpetuate negativity; it can be avoided or removed entirely without harmful consequences.

Don’t give angry people shortcuts to wield negative power; make them either articulate their anger or deal with it in more constructive ways. Social media platforms never benefit from angry, biased groups suppressing messages (often positive and constructive) from people they despise. In those scenarios, everyone loses—so why design the option into your product?

Any feature that petty, time-rich people can abuse to game your product’s ranking or discovery algorithms is a feature that eventually serves up toxic behaviors (regardless of the person’s politics) and is best left out.

Also avoid features that simply waste time, because when people waste time they feel less happy than when they do something productive or constructive. And of course, don’t deliberately design time-wasters into your product and offer users a premium fee to avoid them; that’s just not civil.

To foster positive behavior and encourage civility, you can reward good behavior and hold bad behavior accountable. Holding bad behavior accountable is crucial to establishing a credible community or platform—but no rewards for good behavior risks creating a fear-driven atmosphere.

A great example of designing consciously like this is Nextdoor, a platform for local communities. Nextdoor made a purposeful effort to reduce racial profiling by users by redesigning a small part of their product. For example, when reporting “suspicious activity,” new follow-up questions like “What are they doing that’s suspicious?” are required fields, so that users can no longer simply accuse people of color of “being suspicious.” The resulting 75 percent reduction in racial profiling is great for obvious reasons, but it also has the effect that users are actively being trained to no longer associate the two as interchangeable.

Design to avoid vectors of abuse; strive to encourage positive interactions and, wherever possible, challenge and transform existing biases.

Boost confidence and courage

People likely use your product to accomplish something, whether it’s a leisure task or a professional one. A user who repeats certain tasks with your product is effectively practicing her interactions; find the opportunities therein to help her grow as a person, not just succeed as a worker.

For example, when my cofounder and I set out to create Presentate, our goal wasn’t merely to create a web-based version of Keynote or PowerPoint—we set out to help people lose their fear of public speaking, to prevent audiences from experiencing “Death by PowerPoint,” and to create the fastest, most effective presentation software and sharing platform available on any device.

Our business effort was cut short, but our product design goals were achieved even with our alpha software: our users—the presenters—felt more confident and relaxed, found it easier to focus their energies on their talks, and spent far less time creating the presentations (leaving more time to rehearse). Plus, their audiences didn’t suffer through the dreaded stack of bullet points and a monotonous presentation.

Instead of seeing our product as a combination of features and UI, we considered it a tool that could empower people far beyond the scope of their tasks. Your product can do the same if you think about how it could strengthen related skills (in our case, public speaking) the more someone “practices” by using it.

Think about features and insights that encourage people in positive ways; teach them knowledge you have that they might not, perhaps as imposingly as by embedding its principles as features themselves.

Your user is likely a busy person with a million things on her plate—and on her mind. She won’t sit down and think introspectively about how your product affects her life, but you as the designer or developer can and should do precisely that.

You can spend the extra time upfront thinking about how to inform or teach your users new insights or techniques that help build the confidence they are looking for. Empowerment isn’t just the facilitation of a new ability—it’s the emotional and mental strengthening of confidence in your customer when she meets a challenge and accomplishes something impressive.

Strengthen emotional fortitude

Emotional fortitude is the foundation that helps you to be courageous and honest, and to better withstand setbacks. A person who feels emotionally secure has an easier time finding the courage to admit failure or mistakes, which creates opportunities for them to learn and grow. Conversely, emotional fragility erodes a person’s confidence and obstructs personal growth.

People’s emotional states are influenced heavily by external factors. Our environment plays a role in shaping how we see the world, its opportunities, and its problems. But while there’s been extensive research into the role of legislation on our lives, there’s comparatively little research examining the role that products play in our environment. This is becoming pressing as software and technology communicate with us, to us, and about us as frequently as other people do; they now have as much of an effect on our lives as laws and regulations.

Behavioral science and nudge theory strongly suggest that behaviors can be positively influenced by conscious efforts. For instance, rather than mandating certain actions, you could encourage better decisions or actions by making them more prominent or appealing. This kind of influence can and often does extend beyond behaviors and into our states of mind.

To be clear, this is not a deterministic argument—technology and products don’t inherently make us sad or happy, confident or anxious. Rather, this is an argument that products have the potential to influence us in emotional ways, and that the greater a product’s user base and its daily use of the product, the more impactful its effects can be on how they see and experience the world.

The strongest case for this is made by a variety of studies that show that our current social media platforms make people less happy. But what if those platforms had the opposite effect, instead making people happier and more confident about their lives?

One way is to take a teaching approach with your users. When enforcing Terms of Service, for instance, just saying “your actions are unacceptable and violate our ToS” doesn’t explain what was not okay or why you don’t want that kind of behavior. It also doesn’t suggest which behaviors you are looking to see from users. The former approach causes people to feel emotionally insecure, so focus on the latter—on positive kinds of interactions you wish to foster on your platform. They can be actual conversations, or simply part of your marketing and messaging.

Products can also affect our psychological and emotional well-being through the types of behaviors they facilitate and foster. For example, features that can be exploited by petty individuals may result in a great amount of petty behavior on your platform or within your community; we know this behavior creates emotional fragility, not fortitude. On the other hand, features that surprise and delight users (a tenet of great emotional design) can have a fortifying effect on a person’s emotional state.

When designing Presentate, our goal wasn’t “to make slideware”; our goal was to make presenters more confident in their presentation and have greater confidence as speakers. Our means of achieving that goal was to design a slideware product that would accomplish both.

Another fine example is Tesla, a company that makes electric vehicles and associated technology. As its CEO and founder Elon Musk repeats at many of their product announcements, Tesla’s goal—its mission—is to transform us into a renewable-energy human society. In setting its goal accordingly (and explicitly!), Tesla operates on the premise that it needs to do more than simply make a product; it needs to change people’s views and how they feel about their existing products. At the Solar Roof announcement, Musk reiterated that “the key is to make it desirable,” to make something people want regardless of its role in the energy revolution. Similarly, Tesla’s Model S car outperforms many a muscle car in drag races, legitimizing the electric vehicle as a high-performance option for speed enthusiasts. This approach helps to change people’s wider perceptions, extending beyond the products themselves.

When we set our goals not just to create great products, but products that help transform how we think, we can tackle underlying biases and prejudices that people may have but would be happy to be eased out of. We strengthen their confidence and character, and address problems that go well beyond the scope of any one product. And while none of us are solely responsible for fixing major problems in society, each of us, when designing a product, has an opportunity to make it part of the solution.

Or as Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia said, when asked about why they changed their design:

We don’t think Nextdoor can stamp out racism, but we feel a moral and business obligation to be part of the solution.

Recreate social mores

There is no digital duality, no “real world” separated from our environment online. Generally, every avatar you talk with on a screen has one or more real people behind it—people with real feelings you can hurt as easily online as you could to their face. You just don’t see it, which shows that we do miss out on a number of social cues when interacting on screen: things like tone, sarcasm, playfulness, hurt feelings—or disapproving frowns from our peers.

A street harasser exploits the lack of a social circle that pressures them to behave decently. Oftentimes this is out of ignorance, not malice, including when the harasser is in the company of others who often are equally unaware that such behavior is unwelcome and uncivil. Many, of course, are in denial and shout catcalls at women despite knowing better—and wouldn’t dare catcall a woman in front of their mothers, for example.

In the digital environment, those external social pressures to behave are often lost, so unless they come to you from the strength you have within, it’s all too easy to slip into behavior you wouldn’t engage in while speaking with someone face to face. Let’s be honest: we’ve all said things to people online at some point or another that we would be ashamed to repeat in person.

From a product perspective, that means we have to rely on mechanisms that either invoke those social mores to encourage civil and fruitful interactions, or outright enforce them. We have to design a simulated social circle of peer pressuring friends into the products we make. Nextdoor did it with form fields that asked follow-up questions. What can your product do?

See the best in people (but be realistic)

People prefer being good and happy over being mean-spirited or awful. You can design your products to encourage the best sides of people, to let them shine in their brilliance, to help them learn and grow while doing their work. But don’t mistake seeing the best in people as a reason not to anticipate harmful behaviors or exploitation of your features.

As product designers we deliberately craft solutions to envisioned problems. We should practice expanding our view to encompass and understand more people and the problems they are experiencing. We should strive to make our work a part of the solution, in ways that scale up to millions of users without harmful side effects.

You’ve read this far. That means you’re eager and ready to think bigger, more holistically, and more empathetically about the work that you do. Armed with these principles, you’re ready to take your product design to the next level.

We can’t wait to see what you’ll create!

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