What Is ‘Good Design’ Anyway?

Designers, researchers, developers, and technologists can play a role in contributing to social change. Too often though, whether intended or otherwise, the things we make end up causing real harm and distress.

Illustration: Justin Cheong.
What Is ‘Good Design’ Anyway?
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I believe that technology can have a positive impact on the world.

The first thing that struck me was how oddly charming and pleasant they were. Let’s call them Pete and Jane. They made jokes. Actually funny jokes. They offered us water, tea, and coffee. Their offices were nice without descending into Silicon Valley-esque absurdity. And, again, they were pleasant. Friendly. Nice people.

Pete and Jane were a new gambling client. The agency I worked for back then had a fair few gambling clients — so this was nothing new — but Pete and Jane were high up in their company. They called the shots. They ran the business. I went in assuming they’d be monsters. Sat on thrones made from gold, tears, shame, and the bones of the people they’d driven into early graves.

But they were perfectly nice. I didn’t quite know what to make of that.

Unlike our other gambling clients who had huge numbers of customers with a small average spend, this was a smaller company. They almost had a family feel to them. Much fewer customers, but with a massive average spend. Pete and Jane were able to reel off a handful of customer names off the top of their head. They had regular phone conversations with them. Took their feedback. Took their money. But all the while they were friendly. Charming. As I said, nice people.

We were redesigning their digital gaming platform, and part of the meeting involved our project manager going through some standard requirements. This was a while ago now, so part of that process involved explaining that this wouldn’t be compatible with WAP phones. Remember those, kids?

Even though this was a few years back — we were comfortably in the era of the iPhone at the time — WAP phones were pretty ancient. Pete and Jane seemed startled.

“Oh, it won’t work on WAP phones? That’ll be an issue.” They reeled off more names, like, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Smith, Amy, Margaret. They spoke fondly of a bunch of customers that they knew to have WAP phones. They seemed to genuinely care about them. Even shared a few anecdotes, if I remember correctly.

And then Pete shrugged, smiled, and announced that they’d send them all the very latest iPhones. Free of charge.

Our project manager gasped. Audibly. I think I just sat in stunned silence. They were just giving away thousands of pounds of goods to their users? For free?! A gambling client?

But then, in almost the same breath, Pete said they’d get it all back next week. Margaret spends big. Amy loves the latest game. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I didn’t like gambling clients. I didn’t like working with them, and I relished non-gambling projects. It’s why I eventually quit and starting working in the tech for good space. But this moment still troubles me now.

It was as if a compassion switch was broken in the minds of Pete and Jane. What should have been a red flag for identifying that their customers needed help, was ignored. Instead, the vulnerability of these customers was viewed as a financial opportunity. It sickened me then. It sickens me now.

Technology can do wonderful things. I helped set up Tech for Good Live because I believe there’s a lot of great things to shout about, how technology can make the world better. But so often, too often, it is used to pull people down. Divide them. Break them. Even kill them. And designers like me sip our chilled water in client meetings, or pull long shifts in front of our iMacs, or play with post-it notes on a wall, and design a future that’s bleak as hell.

I now only work on projects that do social good. Projects that have a positive impact on the world. But the work I’ve done over the course of my career still troubles me. Maybe this is all just a selfish soul cleansing exercise?

Good design: Beyond the metrics

We were lucky enough last year to have Mike Monteiro on the Tech for Good Live podcast as he talked about how there is no such thing as a well-designed gun. A gun is designed to kill. How can that ever be well designed?

I regularly work with design students, whether it’s guest lecturing or mentoring, and “good design” is something that comes up a lot. Good design cannot exist on an online gambling platform. ‘Good’ shouldn’t just be about success metrics — if your success is about the bottom line and little else.

A requirement of good design must be to understand and to measure impact. Not just financial impact. But social impact. That’s complicated. It’s not easy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

How often do we ask, in what ways could this app / chatbot / website / brochure I’m designing cause someone harm? Who haven’t we spoken to? Who have we forgotten?

The best designers I’ve known have tended to push themselves hard. They know that standing still in this industry leaves you obsolete in a year or two. In the same way that designers study the latest trends, adapt to the latests tools and processes, so too should we push ourselves to consider the social context of our work. A user-centred design approach has become increasingly normal. Those stakeholder and client battles have become easier. But at times, being simply user-centred can be too narrow. It’s not enough to just look at primary users and the immediate beneficiaries of our products. We should challenge ourselves. Who have we disadvantaged or displaced? Who has our algorithm hurt or disenfranchised? How could this interesting thing we’ve made be misused and cause harm once it leaves our hands?

I want to be able to look back on my career and say that the world is a little bit better for me having been in it. That the things my design teams have released have made a positive impact. I’ve still some way to go.

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