People just starting out in product design are commonly driven by a simple desire to make things pretty. In the beginning there’s almost no greater goal, we’re moving shapes, colors and words around, trying to make them look nice together. Our reasoning is naively selfish.
Soon after we begin to discover the functional importance of our work and how it impacts people. We start to talk about users and satisfying their needs. It’s not about us anymore, not only what makes us feel good, but what makes people interacting with our software happy. And ideally it provides enough value so that people are willing to pay for it.
UX theory usually stops there. As it is most commonly defined, user experience design is about harmonizing user needs and business goals. “Business goals” usually equalling profit. If a product is making money and grows, things are fine. And if you don’t happen to work in public services, academia, open-source or any other of the rare cases where making more money isn’t essential – profitability is about the only relevant metric that determines how good of a work you’re doing with your product.
That sounds like a fair exchange. Only the reality is slightly darker. What happens when businesses are motivated only by maximizing profit, at some point they grow so big they become blind for people and their lives. And they eventually become harmful to the society.
So even when you’re, as an individual, under a strong impression that you’re working in the best interest of your users, you’re unconsciously drawn into a disguised destructive activity.
How your design melts ice caps?
Say, you’re a designer at Google Maps. No one can argue it isn’t an incredibly useful product. You deliver every day and go home proud of yourself, sincerely believing you’re making the world a better place for the entire humanity. But besides helping people find places more easily, your talent has been implicitly exploited for making the biggest surveillance machine in the history of mankind. And its genuine intention is really pathetic.
Google gives us the most amazing maps ever for free, but in exchange they track us everywhere. Analyzing an incredible amount of data from our phones, they learn everything about our habits. They know where and what we eat, how much we earn, who our friends and our lovers are, how rich they are, how rich are our parents, who we went to school with, where we spend our holidays, do we prefer beaches or museums, rock or rap, they can even easily figure out if we’re having an affair if they really wanted to… Just so they can convince us to spend more money buying things. Suddenly, we consume 10× of what we need. We even take loans so we can consume more. To buy more cars, furniture, clothes and food. Next thing you know, oceans are drowning in our waste, struggle to regulate the temperature, ice polar caps melt and we all die.
The moral of recycling
But hey, we’re all in this together. The socioeconomic framework we participate in is like a software designed so badly it’s continually damaging the computer it is running on.
As naive as this may sound, I cope with this by choosing jobs whose impact I can imagine as at least neutral to the society. For example, renting my labor to companies building tools. Software like developer tools that make someone’s life immediately better. And avoid contributing to marketing and advertising companies whose obvious immediate goal is to pump spending. Even though, at the end of the day, you can’t avoid participating in the system and contributing implicitly, so it almost doesn’t matter.
It’s like separating waste. Or buying organic. We unconsciously know our individual action doesn’t do shit, but we still do it. To make small acts of solidarity with nature. To be at peace with ourselves.