Designers, (Re)define Success First

About two and a half years ago, I introduced the idea of daily ethical design. It was born out of my frustration with the many obstacles to achieving design that’s usable and equitable; protects people’s privacy, agency, and focus; benefits society; and restores nature. I argued that we need to overcome the inconveniences that prevent us from acting ethically and that we need to elevate design ethics to a more practical level by structurally integrating it into our daily work, processes, and tools.

Unfortunately, we’re still very far from this ideal. 

At the time, I didn’t know yet how to structurally integrate ethics. Yes, I had found some tools that had worked for me in previous projects, such as using checklists, assumption tracking, and “dark reality” sessions, but I didn’t manage to apply those in every project. I was still struggling for time and support, and at best I had only partially achieved a higher (moral) quality of design—which is far from my definition of structurally integrated.

I decided to dig deeper for the root causes in business that prevent us from practicing daily ethical design. Now, after much research and experimentation, I believe that I’ve found the key that will let us structurally integrate ethics. And it’s surprisingly simple! But first we need to zoom out to get a better understanding of what we’re up against.

Influence the system

Sadly, we’re trapped in a capitalistic system that reinforces consumerism and inequality, and it’s obsessed with the fantasy of endless growth. Sea levels, temperatures, and our demand for energy continue to rise unchallenged, while the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Shareholders expect ever-higher returns on their investments, and companies feel forced to set short-term objectives that reflect this. Over the last decades, those objectives have twisted our well-intended human-centered mindset into a powerful machine that promotes ever-higher levels of consumption. When we’re working for an organization that pursues “double-digit growth” or “aggressive sales targets” (which is 99 percent of us), that’s very hard to resist while remaining human friendly. Even with our best intentions, and even though we like to say that we create solutions for people, we’re a part of the problem.

What can we do to change this?

We can start by acting on the right level of the system. Donella H. Meadows, a system thinker, once listed ways to influence a system in order of effectiveness. When you apply these to design, you get:

  • At the lowest level of effectiveness, you can affect numbers such as usability scores or the number of design critiques. But none of that will change the direction of a company.
  • Similarly, affecting buffers (such as team budgets), stocks (such as the number of designers), flows (such as the number of new hires), and delays (such as the time that it takes to hear about the effect of design) won’t significantly affect a company.
  • Focusing instead on feedback loops such as management control, employee recognition, or design-system investments can help a company become better at achieving its objectives. But that doesn’t change the objectives themselves, which means that the organization will still work against your ethical-design ideals.
  • The next level, information flows, is what most ethical-design initiatives focus on now: the exchange of ethical methods, toolkits, articles, conferences, workshops, and so on. This is also where ethical design has remained mostly theoretical. We’ve been focusing on the wrong level of the system all this time.
  • Take rules, for example—they beat knowledge every time. There can be widely accepted rules, such as how finance works, or a scrum team’s definition of done. But ethical design can also be smothered by unofficial rules meant to maintain profits, often revealed through comments such as “the client didn’t ask for it” or “don’t make it too big.”
  • Changing the rules without holding official power is very hard. That’s why the next level is so influential: self-organization. Experimentation, bottom-up initiatives, passion projects, self-steering teams—all of these are examples of self-organization that improve the resilience and creativity of a company. It’s exactly this diversity of viewpoints that’s needed to structurally tackle big systemic issues like consumerism, wealth inequality, and climate change.
  • Yet even stronger than self-organization are objectives and metrics. Our companies want to make more money, which means that everything and everyone in the company does their best to… make the company more money. And once I realized that profit is nothing more than a measurement, I understood how crucial a very specific, defined metric can be toward pushing a company in a certain direction.

The takeaway? If we truly want to incorporate ethics into our daily design practice, we must first change the measurable objectives of the company we work for, from the bottom up.

Redefine success

Traditionally, we consider a product or service successful if it’s desirable to humans, technologically feasible, and financially viable. You tend to see these represented as equals; if you type the three words in a search engine, you’ll find diagrams of three equally sized, evenly arranged circles.

But in our hearts, we all know that the three dimensions aren’t equally weighted: it’s viability that ultimately controls whether a product will go live. So a more realistic representation might look like this:

Desirability and feasibility are the means; viability is the goal. Companies—outside of nonprofits and charities—exist to make money.

A genuinely purpose-driven company would try to reverse this dynamic: it would recognize finance for what it was intended for: a means. So both feasibility and viability are means to achieve what the company set out to achieve. It makes intuitive sense: to achieve most anything, you need resources, people, and money. (Fun fact: the Italian language knows no difference between feasibility and viability; both are simply fattibilità.)

But simply swapping viable for desirable isn’t enough to achieve an ethical outcome. Desirability is still linked to consumerism because the associated activities aim to identify what people want—whether it’s good for them or not. Desirability objectives, such as user satisfaction or conversion, don’t consider whether a product is healthy for people. They don’t prevent us from creating products that distract or manipulate people or stop us from contributing to society’s wealth inequality. They’re unsuitable for establishing a healthy balance with nature.

There’s a fourth dimension of success that’s missing: our designs also need to be ethical in the effect that they have on the world.

This is hardly a new idea. Many similar models exist, some calling the fourth dimension accountability, integrity, or responsibility. What I’ve never seen before, however, is the necessary step that comes after: to influence the system as designers and to make ethical design more practical, we must create objectives for ethical design that are achievable and inspirational. There’s no one way to do this because it highly depends on your culture, values, and industry. But I’ll give you the version that I developed with a group of colleagues at a design agency. Consider it a template to get started.

Pursue well-being, equity, and sustainability

We created objectives that address design’s effect on three levels: individual, societal, and global.

An objective on the individual level tells us what success is beyond the typical focus of usability and satisfaction—instead considering matters such as how much time and attention is required from users. We pursued well-being:

We create products and services that allow for people’s health and happiness. Our solutions are calm, transparent, nonaddictive, and nonmisleading. We respect our users’ time, attention, and privacy, and help them make healthy and respectful choices.

An objective on the societal level forces us to consider our impact beyond just the user, widening our attention to the economy, communities, and other indirect stakeholders. We called this objective equity:

We create products and services that have a positive social impact. We consider economic equality, racial justice, and the inclusivity and diversity of people as teams, users, and customer segments. We listen to local culture, communities, and those we affect.

Finally, the objective on the global level aims to ensure that we remain in balance with the only home we have as humanity. Referring to it simply as sustainability, our definition was:

We create products and services that reward sufficiency and reusability. Our solutions support the circular economy: we create value from waste, repurpose products, and prioritize sustainable choices. We deliver functionality instead of ownership, and we limit energy use.

In short, ethical design (to us) meant achieving wellbeing for each user and an equitable value distribution within society through a design that can be sustained by our living planet. When we introduced these objectives in the company, for many colleagues, design ethics and responsible design suddenly became tangible and achievable through practical—and even familiar—actions.

Measure impact 

But defining these objectives still isn’t enough. What truly caught the attention of senior management was the fact that we created a way to measure every design project’s well-being, equity, and sustainability.

This overview lists example metrics that you can use as you pursue well-being, equity, and sustainability:

There’s a lot of power in measurement. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done. Donella Meadows once shared this example:

“If the desired system state is national security, and that is defined as the amount of money spent on the military, the system will produce military spending. It may or may not produce national security.”

This phenomenon explains why desirability is a poor indicator of success: it’s typically defined as the increase in customer satisfaction, session length, frequency of use, conversion rate, churn rate, download rate, and so on. But none of these metrics increase the health of people, communities, or ecosystems. What if instead we measured success through metrics for (digital) well-being, such as (reduced) screen time or software energy consumption?

There’s another important message here. Even if we set an objective to build a calm interface, if we were to choose the wrong metric for calmness—say, the number of interface elements—we could still end up with a screen that induces anxiety. Choosing the wrong metric can completely undo good intentions. 

Additionally, choosing the right metric is enormously helpful in focusing the design team. Once you go through the exercise of choosing metrics for our objectives, you’re forced to consider what success looks like concretely and how you can prove that you’ve reached your ethical objectives. It also forces you to consider what we as designers have control over: what can I include in my design or change in my process that will lead to the right type of success? The answer to this question brings a lot of clarity and focus.

And finally, it’s good to remember that traditional businesses run on measurements, and managers love to spend much time discussing charts (ideally hockey-stick shaped)—especially if they concern profit, the one-above-all of metrics. For good or ill, to improve the system, to have a serious discussion about ethical design with managers, we’ll need to speak that business language.

Practice daily ethical design

Once you’ve defined your objectives and you have a reasonable idea of the potential metrics for your design project, only then do you have a chance to structurally practice ethical design. It “simply” becomes a matter of using your creativity and choosing from all the knowledge and toolkits already available to you.

I think this is quite exciting! It opens a whole new set of challenges and considerations for the design process. Should you go with that energy-consuming video or would a simple illustration be enough? Which typeface is the most calm and inclusive? Which new tools and methods do you use? When is the website’s end of life? How can you provide the same service while requiring less attention from users? How do you make sure that those who are affected by decisions are there when those decisions are made? How can you measure our effects?

The redefinition of success will completely change what it means to do good design.

There is, however, a final piece of the puzzle that’s missing: convincing your client, product owner, or manager to be mindful of well-being, equity, and sustainability. For this, it’s essential to engage stakeholders in a dedicated kickoff session.

Kick it off or fall back to status quo

The kickoff is the most important meeting that can be so easy to forget to include. It consists of two major phases: 1) the alignment of expectations, and 2) the definition of success.

In the first phase, the entire (design) team goes over the project brief and meets with all the relevant stakeholders. Everyone gets to know one another and express their expectations on the outcome and their contributions to achieving it. Assumptions are raised and discussed. The aim is to get on the same level of understanding and to in turn avoid preventable miscommunications and surprises later in the project.

For example, for a recent freelance project that aimed to design a digital platform that facilitates US student advisors’ documentation and communication, we conducte

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