Measuring the impact of (design) consequences

I’m tired of talking about design, I want to focus on what we’ve created.

Design is inevitable. Like many unavoidable things, design constraints the ways services, systems & experiences are shaped. We see the fallout of these everyday. No one thinks about borders being design problems, but they are. With many people getting themselves in a tizzy about the newest design adjacent hotness — systems thinking, design thinking, even service design — it’s not ever asked what people are going to do with this newfound knowledge.

It’s pretty clear that we know now, people are looking for tricks to manipulate and consign people they don’t consider as part of their audience with design choices that can’t be fixed.

One of the problems with the so-called laws of things like user experience, is that we’re presupposing that people reach our websites, use our apps, or experience our services in a uniform way. Every time someone asks to speak to a manager, they’re an edge case. Some people have a legitimate gripe that can be solved at these low levels of interventions, but none of these experiences are consistent, and it’s the reason that you and a friend can visit the same restaurant, order the same food and walk away feeling like it was a subpar or stellar experience. It depends on who served you, what time of day you went, and perhaps many other smaller interactions that never get mapped.

Designers need to consider the externalities of present day design choices. I’m sure anyone who ever designed a delivery app didn’t think about the impact of this technology on entire communities. I’m sure lots of people who lamented the frustration of getting a taxi cab late at night, think there’s a lot of value in having a fleet of cars available at all hours of the day able to take them to their airport, home from a bar or ordering a car for a friend in a far-flung locale.

By themselves, interaction architectures aren’t bad. But thinking more widely about the ways that we’ve allowed a bevy of non-local tools consume many of the interpersonal connection points that used to exist locally has some merit. The genie is never going back into the bottle, but having policymakers and civic-minded people able to measure these harms will give us an ability to quantify what we’ve lost.

The incursion of AI onto everyday life makes it even more crucial to education and inform people about the challenges that exist, how these impacts can harm and devising standards and empowering a practice of designers who adhere to them and insist on holding the industry accountable. There’s a lot of talk about how people working in tech need more the liberal arts now more than ever, which I agree with.

The phenomenon of brand masking outsourcing reveals a quintessential design flaw - companies projecting brand omnipresence while operationally outsourcing to remote entities. This creates an illusion of authenticity but enables precarity at scale. Workers embrace the mirage of being brand employees, although in reality the jobs are outsourced.

This collective veil of ignorance obscures the harms that arise when no local employees actually represent the brand on their shirts. The social fabric depends on shared agreements and understanding. Such exploitative schemes appear cheaper but make communities poorer - emptying Main Street stores, reducing businesses that donate to local causes. What seems efficient on the surface often carries hidden costs to communal bonds and shared prosperity.

Consequence Impact Scoring

Consequence Impact Scores” (CIS) could help assess design’s broader impacts. Like how economists measure value, CIS would quantify externalities. It would go beyond user-focused metrics to also consider societal, ethical, and interpersonal effects. CIS would thoroughly evaluate each design choice’s potential downsides, like isolation, ethics dilemmas, and community impacts. The final score would show the overall societal footprint, enabling more balanced conversations between designers, companies, and society.

Adopting CIS could promote accountability and transparency in design. Companies could better anticipate ripples and make informed, ethical choices. Public scoring could enable new levels of openness. CIS could also bridge tech and the humanities. A shared language around consequences could shift focus from just user metrics to holistic evaluation. CIS represents a paradigm shift toward conscientious design. Impacts would be measured and integrated from the start. Dialogue could evolve from metric monologues to diverse, nuanced conversations enriched by many perspectives. The screens mediating our digital lives would be created with deeper understanding of their broad footprints.

Our collective acquiescence obfuscates harm and limits envisioning humane design frameworks. This is where Consequence Impact Scoring becomes pivotal - by quantifying externalities and societal costs of current choices, it compels reevaluating policies and consensus that sustain harmful paradigms.

Advocating for CIS isn’t academic but an urgent call to action - urging policymakers, designers and the public to look past brand facades and into the designs shaping our realities. It’s an invitation to unmask hidden costs, challenge entrenched paradigms, and enable enlightened discourse on operations’ community impacts.

Together we can foster more conscientious design, where consequences are measured and integrated from the outset. The screens mediating our digital lives can be created with deeper understanding of their broad footprints.

October 29, 2023