Preferable Futures

And how to design them.

by Rui Eduardo on May '19

Illustration by Ana Mafalda

“Design will save the world.” That’s why we became designers — the yearning for having a positive impact, shaping our surroundings, and designing a better tomorrow. It’s a knack we have: to think about the future and how to get there. Lately, we lost focus.

Design has been misused as a tool for manipulation, trickery, and freedom wearing. Facebook, Google, and most of the tech industry easily fall under this umbrella. Dark patterns: “a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills” 1 became so ubiquitous that they’re used without consideration of their impact. How many apps did you use today which have an infinite scroll? How many notifications did you receive this morning and how many were needed?

That’s where ethics is finding its place in design. “Ethics doesn’t distinguish between right or wrong. Rather, it guides people to a preferable future, universally.”2. It becomes the constant questioning and alignment of intention; the reminder that what we create has an impact. Every decision we make, whether we intend it or not, affects those we’re designing for. Take the example of the infinite scroll: it makes people spend more time in your app - but at the expense of what? Perhaps sleep deprivation and social exclusion.

It doesn’t need to be that way: a lot of companies, designers, and developers are laudably proving that every day. And it’s not just about ethics — its good business:

Apple

Privacy as the main competitive advantage. It’s in every product, their advertising, and website: Apple’s new business model is not subscriptions, it’s privacy. Why? It’s good for people, and it’s one of the most challenging things for their competitors to copy as it would mean a complete change of business models.

Are.na

Transparency from the ground up. If you haven’t heard of are.na please go check them out! Fast Company said about are.na that “In the groundswell of anger and suspicion toward social media platforms, Are.na feels like a necessary antidote.”3 Their open and transparent ways of doing are indeed a breath of fresh air - see their transparent roadmap here.

DuckDuckGo

Google without the evil.‌ Also, another proof that you can run a successful tech company while doing things the right way. Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo founder, said: “Our vision is to set a new standard of trust online. The Internet shouldn’t feel so creepy and getting the privacy you deserve online should be as simple as closing the blinds.”. Read more about their business model here.

Monzo

A new type of bank.‌ With their transparency page, Monzo is showing the way on how to build trust, and be accountable for their actions. See more here.

Everything interconnects:

These examples show us that it’s possible. Now let’s get started! As designers, we were taught to design with people at heart. We should remember that. However, we shouldn’t forget that people have a place in society, the environment, and business. Embrace complexity. We can’t design in the vacuum.

To help us do that, we’ve started developing a new design critique tool. It helps us be mindful about the potential impact and to ideate around possible solutions to the challenges we identify. Here’s a snapshot of the framework:

Four areas of the design impact board: people, business, society, and environment.

Start by gathering the team to talk impact. Take a project you’re working on, have worked, or are about to start. Give a short explainer on what problems you’re trying to solve and how you’re answering them. Then map those solutions to their impact in each one of the verticals in the template. Ask yourself: what are the things you designed that can impact people, the environment, society, and business in a positive way? And negatively?

Take the example of a transportation service (like Uber or Lift). Your system might look something like:

People:

Positive impact: convenient and quick access to a ride for users and a new income source for drivers.
Negative impact: unregulated work, might lead to insecurity in rides, and loss of worker’s rights.

Business:

Positive impact: working as a transportation platform with a clear use-case, for users and workers, allows for an easily scalable solution.

Society:

Negative impact: More congested roads, slower traffic, and more city space taken from people.

Environment:

Negative impact: the business incentive is to put more cars on the streets to enable quick access, causing more noise and pollution in our cities.

When you’re done, you should have a clearer picture of the impact your design is having. Is there anything you can add, change, or remove, to make the overall system more positive? To balance the disparities?

Think of it as an always-evolving picture. Have it nearby, make sure to update it, and don’t stop questioning how to make the system better.

What next?

We know this won’t be the solution to all problems. However, we believe that being mindful of our decisions is a good place to start.

If you found value on this, tried this tool, have questions, suggestions, or want to share how you’re tackling these issues – please let us know!

Download the design impact board template here.
with — Fjord Stockholm.


  1. Singer, Natasha. “When Websites Won't Take No for an Answer.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/technology/personaltech/when-websites-wont-take-no-for-an-answer.html?_r=0. ↩︎

  2. Julé, Sylvain, director. Ethics for Design. Ethics for Design, 2017, www.ethicsfordesign.com/. ↩︎

  3. Schwab, Katharine. “The Ad-Free, User-Owned Future Of Social Media.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 9 July 2018, www.fastcompany.com/90166456/the-ad-free-user-owned-future-of-social-media. ↩︎