People just starting out in digital 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. You could argue our reasoning is still naively selfish.
Soon after we begin to discover the functional importance of our work and how it impacts people. Around that point 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 has enough value so that some people are willing to pay for it.
UX theory usually stops there. As it is most commonly defined, user experience design is about harmonizing the needs of users with the goals of business. “The goals of business” usually equalling profit. If a product is making money, things are good. And if you don’t happen to work in public services, academia, open-source or any other of the rare cases where money making imperative isn’t present – profitability is about the only relevant metric that determines how good of a work you’re doing with your product.
The immoral disguise
That sounds like a fair exchange. Only the reality isn’t all that nice. 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 come? Say, you’re a designer at Google Maps. One of my favorite products ever, I’m using it almost every day. You deliver honest work and you go home proud of yourself and your team every day, sincerely believing you’re making the world a nicer place for millions of your users.
Unfortunately, it turns out you’ve been used. Your incredible talent has been implicitly exploited for making the biggest surveillance machine in the history of mankind. And its genuine intention is really pathetic, but nonetheless dangerous.
Google gives us the most amazing maps man has ever seen for free, but in exchange they track us everywhere, they learn everything about our habits, 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 country, they can even figure out if we’re having an affair if they really wanted to… And all the fuss just so they can push us into spending more money buying things.
Next thing you know, we unconsciously consume 10× of what we really need, oceans are drowning in our plastic, killing the creatures that regulate its temperature, ice polar caps melt and we all die.
Just because you accepted that stupid free-candy-and-massage-included job offer from Google.
The moral of recycling
But don’t worry, I forgive you. In fact, we’re all guilty of this together. It’s a system disease. The economic and moral framework we live in is like a software designed so badly it continually damages the computer it is running on.
I cope with it by choosing jobs whose impact I can imagine as good or at least neutral to the society. It can be often remarkably difficult to assess the implications correctly, but there is a certain threshold in the size of a company above which all of them are undeniably corrupt and destructive.
Finally, moralizing about where to work is almost rude when most people don’t get the privilege of choice. For those of us who do, in many ways 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.