Opinions

The Moral Obligations Of Digital Product Design

Only when our lives are positively impacted can the digital revolution be considered a success.

Share this article

Share this article

Only when our lives are positively impacted can the digital revolution be considered a success.

Opinions

The Moral Obligations Of Digital Product Design

Only when our lives are positively impacted can the digital revolution be considered a success.

Share this article

There’s no doubt about it, digital technology has changed the world around us: need a late night taxi, there’s an app for that; need some entertainment on the way to work, there’s a game for that; need an expensive sushi collection for that client meeting, we’ve got your back.

Yes, technology is great, but the pervasive nature of digital tools has lead to companies finding themselves slaves to KPIs and the demands of the digital world. As designers, we’re forgetting we have a responsibility to drive positive outcomes by focusing on the impact tech will have on users and society.

The problem is, an awful lot of products are designed to be just like a sugar rush-inducing candy: applications deliberately created to give us hits of dopamine. How many times have you wasted an entire evening scrolling through your Facebook or Instagram newsfeed? Ever asked yourself what you’re missing out on in the process?

Many products and services have no or little purpose, except to ‘engage’ us, generate clicks or lock us into content or branding. All too often, agencies and companies make products ‘because they can’, but this often leads to disconcerting results that we're only just beginning to understand.

For every engaging app, you’ll find an addict; for every alert, an interrupted moment with a loved one; for every connected community, an echo chamber; for every accessible piece of news, an alternative fact; for every Facebook chat, a lost opportunity to spend more time with your kids. The list goes on.

While some of these products are a result of 'unintended outcomes', many are consciously made design decisions - think overzealous notifications, privacy settings that are ridiculously hard to find, switching products without telling anyone, opting people in without asking them etc.

In our age of digital overload, we find ourselves at a critical point in the digital revolution. Developers need to take a more selective and considered approach to the products they launch into the world.

Design for the end user

Developments in technology are profound, and designers often marvel at what they 'can' do rather than what will provide maximum value to the end user. Even though the goal of technological innovation is to make something better, easier, faster, more convenient, progress is often remarkably technology first, people second.

Instead of the be all and end all, technology should be the enabler for products that have a positive, measurable impact to people first and foremost. It’s not rocket science either.

At every stage of product development, the question to ask is whether it will help or hinder people. Will it improve the experience, solve multiple headaches in the system or help you experiment or learn new things?

Reversing the 80/20 rule

The challenge with wanting to design for good outcomes, to be more considered and deliberate, is that our own industries often get in the way.

The 80/20 rule where agencies, consultancies and client organisations spend only 20% of their time working on products they’re actually proud of, is frankly ridiculous.

How many agencies or product owners within client organisations are actively encouraged by their bosses to sell rubbish? As long as it drives KPIs, no one cares. But this can hardly be considered as ‘great work’, regardless of which side of the client/agency fence you sit.

The truth is that it’s hard to say ‘stop!’, or ‘wait’, or even ‘we’re better than this’. The stakes are high and it can seem virtually impossible to turn the ship after it has set sail, but this is why we should ask critical questions when it’s still moored to the dock.

The entire ecosystem of clients, agencies, designers, developers, coaches, strategists and VCs needs to be braver and take a radical stance to problem solving.

Focus on collaboration

It’s impossible to expect such innovation to sit within just one party. Agencies in particular are quick to claim that they can do it all.

This is one of those ‘alternative facts’. Things are simply moving too fast and are often too complex for any one entity to know it all, to be able to build it all, or to lead it all.

On the other hand, agencies, consultancies and strategy firms talk a good talk about working together, but once the meter is running things tend to fall apart with all parties engaging in a tussle to claim ‘client ownership’.

If collaboration, working together and playing to our mutual strengths helps to deliver a great, impactful products, then shouldn’t we be doing that? Shared ideas, spirit and intellect will usually deliver positive results for everyone involved, not least the client.

This is not about bringing everybody in the room. Launching great products or successful campaigns might need an army of collaborators or only four people. The secret is to identify complementary skills and enable people to work together as a team, regardless whether this needs to happen internally or cross-agency.

It’s time for the creative industries to get back to a more positive and considered approach to designing products and services. To help our clients and partners to get to the point of the product fast, make good decisions for their users and customers, help them be as informed as possible, and aim for positive and intended outcomes.

Scott Ewings is managing director at Big Radical.

Related Articles
Get news to your inbox

The Moral Obligations Of Digital Product Design

Share this article