Sunday, April 08, 2018

Good Digital Design Is, Above All, Transparent

A request for design critics

A few weeks ago I attended the IXDA meet-up in Berlin where Vinod Khan's repeated his talk delivered at IXDA 2018 in Lyon. It takes only 18 minutes to watch

According to Khan, there's a backlash against digital experiences like social networking and addictive mobile technology. Most of the undesirable consequences of these systems stem from poor design choices, and if we do not change how we make these choices as new technologies come online, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes. We make poor design choices because we are focussed on execution and implementation; asking Does it work? instead of Is it good? Is it good for the users? Is it good for the community? Is it good for the world?
He thinks we do not ask the right question because of the poor state of design criticism; there's nobody trying to elevate the field of digital design by discussing it the way movie and architecture critics do in their own fields in newspapers and magazines.

This last part does not hold water for me as a remedy to the ills digital has brought; I find it hard to argue that Siskel and Ebert and everyone before or after them have altered the course of cinema for the much better when TRANSFORMERS 5 exist, and exists for as much money as it actually cost to make, or that architecture criticism has truly made a difference in a country that has McMansions coast to coast until they hit cities with needle-like glass towers contorting themselves for of air rights. We live in a capitalist world: money wins. Having our own Alonso Duralde for digital design is not going to change that, it will only warn us earlier about bad stuff. And in the one area of digital design where there is a robust culture of reviewing and critique, gaming, has it really advanced the field, elevated it? Or did it all come from a desire of the gaming community to be entertained even more spectacularly, including in storytelling, to get to the level of movies?

Even if a culture of digital critiquing would amount to more change than what current bloggers and ratings and reviews on app stores have already achieved, it is quite facile to just ask for it and then wait for others to create and pay for this new employment category. Where is Vinod's own employer, Adobe, successful maker of design tools? They could easily sponsor and independent chair at Stanford to do just that. So does every other large design corporation wishing to advance the field beyond how to use their tools to get to market even faster and better. Don't ask the NYT to do it, they are strapped enough. Ask where the money is.

Good is either a business or an externality

In order to make our field of Design to get our space at the table, we focussed on how design enables beneficial outcomes outcomes, but the outcomes capitalism wants are outcomes in terms of business. Therefore our language of what is good is very often about business: 'Good' is equivalent 'Works'.

But considering we are in a planetary extinction and everyone hates each other in our societies, it is not enough anymore.

There's a name for the effects on society and the planet that capitalism drops off from view: externalities. These are costs or benefits incurred by parties that did not choose to incur them, very often not even being part of the transaction. Pollution is an externality, bad labor practices are externalities, the healthcare system buckling under the result of food having been manipulated to be so delicious people can't stop consuming it to death is an externality, and I'd argue having your political opinion manipulated by lies your online photo sharing website shows you to make money is an externality.

Much of government regulation of capitalist markets is about pushing these externalities the markets shoved out of view back into view, either by letting consumers know the product has these externalities (calorie counts on menus, energy consumption ratings) or making the producers or consumers incur these costs and benefits so that market forces start working on them--the only alternative being appeals to altruism, and we have already found that altruism is a sub-standard motivator compared to being able to buy more stuff. Being able to pay for good nutrition, environmental consciousness, social justice, are all the privilege only of the people with money to spare for it, and currently those are the ones fully embedded and profiting from the capitalism that equates good to various forms of efficiently making more (or spending less) money.

When Good is an externality, Good is a post-capitalist metric

Does It Work? in digital design always asks whether the design makes people interact in a way that keeps the lights on in some fashion, whether it is through results like payment, capturing attention for delivery to advertisers, or otherwise hits stakeholder metrics. Considering 'Is it Good?' as separate from Work means Good in this case is not about making money and removes it from capitalism, if not economics alltogether, making it a post-capitalist, if not an anti-capitalist, question.

But what is Good? Money is at least easily measurable as a metric, a reason for it having such primacy. A ton has been written about what is Good in design, but most of it veers eventually to 'Does It Work' or ends up highly subject to the time and mores it was written. For example, taking Dieter Ram's eternal 10 good rules of design, every one can be undermined and is thus not eternal. Good design is innovative? Does that means a design stops being Good as soon as its changes have been mainstreamed? Good design makes a product understandable? What about when the idea is to surprise? Rococo would like to have a word about Good design being as little design as possible. And so on. 

These rules are actually some of the finest examples of removing Good from the realm of efficiency and metrics, aka Work, and yet they fall apart in digital. Digital design is theatre, layers and layers of simulations put atop electric sand that only thinks in on and off. I find it impossible to talk about design being honest or long lasting in this environment, and once we move from products to services with multiple touch-points, the time-tested rules that do not leave humans crazy frustrated actually come from theme-park design, and there's no 'honest' and minimalism there at all: it is all show.

But why are these sets of rules considered Good? In a society that highly valued constant surprise and distraction and ornamentation, Rams would be a niche taste, as digital experiences along those rules would leave most people unsatisfied. Sklar's theme park rules work because they maximise human happiness, but individualists feel highly manipulated by Disney theme parks. Minimalism only makes people happy who like minimalism. Low touch or high touch only makes people happy who like either. Good is what we as individuals like, what aligns to our values.

That's just considering whether an individual finds the design Good. Our current problems are social, and planetary like never before. So back to Is This Design Good for society? Is It Good for the world? We know these are post-capitalist questions: if they actually fit in the framework of capitalism, all products in the market by default would be taking a clear stand in their relationship to global warming and equal rights; currently they only do so as part of a marketing: a capitalist strategy of trying to increase market share through increasing demand which is completely optional.

Good is empty. And then paternalistic

As argued, there are no objective criteria for Good. Good is always defined by those wielding it, and they wield according to the values instilled in their culture. Good usually barely measurable; this is why it has been so easy for Work to co-opt Good so often in digital design--capitalism needs measuring to work.

To imbue Good with meaning when we judge digital on a societal or planetary scale we have to define what the societal or planetary values are that we want to collectively promote. China proves this kind of agreement can be imposed top-down, but in societies like in the Americas, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, all based on maximising personal freedom and expression, those attempts are highly suspect. Creating a consensus of values bottom-up there a) takes forever and b) leaves money or power on the table for those who can monetise iconoclasm or would lose out in the consensus about sustainability or what is a political truth--and capitalism hates leaving money on the table and geo-politics demands power. In 'The West' we like to live by our own personal values and hope we are collectively smart enough to chase good social or planetary outcomes. (Plot twist: It looks like we are not. But we won't switch to a collectivist model until it is too late, because we think they have lousy track records.)

My number one argument here is that we can not come to collective decisions through applying our individual values if we are being lied to. Whatever it is we individually deem Good, for ourselves, society, or the planet, we can not collectively get it right if we are being deceived, manipulated, or lied to, even by omission. We may, in our individualistic societies, still end up being divided and rendered ineffectual by our digital experiences so badly that we end up pushing the current extinction cataclysm to include our species, or tear our current societies apart into fiefdoms and dictatorships controlled by other countries, but we are certainly not going to avoid those bad outcomes if digital continues to hide truths about how it works and what it is doing in the service of capitalist means.

Therefore, the main thing digital design has to be now to even approach Good, is Transparent, and radically so.

Digital needs to tell us what the effects of our choices are when engaging with it. For our societies. For our planet. We can't tell if we like what you are doing if you are lying to us about what you are doing. But the main and most destructive reason to lie in digital these days is to make money by creating some illusion users are getting value instead of providing it to the companies with massive unforeseen circumstances.

(And if "lying" is too strong a word then fine, call it "having certain trade secrets" or "omission" or "burying shit pages deep in a financial disclosure or user agreement with the toughest language.")

Some initial questions I can think of to create that transparency are:

Who is paying for what we see?
For every item in my view, I should be able to quickly explore by drilling down:

  • Who benefits from me seeing it, 
  • Who paid for it, 
  • Who that organisation actually is, not stopping at some generic name like "People For Puppies and Kittens Inc."

(I still can't get over that Facebook, who clung to their Real Names policy so hard it became a club to use against trans and other vulnerable people, actually had no problem allowing malicious content farms disguise themselves and shovel wholesale lies to Facebook users by the bucketful.)

How are the lights being kept on? 
What is the actual business model of this site or app? This should be a simple document that is easily findable on the site, or that App Stores will insist to have on file and can be found by just long-pressing the app icon. Lying on it should be criminal.

Who is getting paid from our taps and our attention? Per tap or click?
We don't need to know how much, but if I am going to use a digital experience and I want it to align with my personal or collective values of what I want to promote and who I want to support, I need to know who it is supporting and promoting. No more "Like" to a cute-puppies content farm to support their fascist-garbage divisions.

Where is our data going to go? Who owns it? What is being done with it?
I am actually pretty OK with sites collecting data from me, as long as they use them for my benefit and I am informed or even retain control over who else benefits from it. I totally want Netflix to give me better recommendations. I totally want GMail to show me fewer garbage ads and more of what I may want. But I need to know who they are going to give my data to, aggregate or not. I want to know I am supporting a company with my time or money that won't undermine me or my family or what I consider to be my rights or my ecosystem.

How much resources are you going to take from me?
Next time you interact with any service that wants your email, look for a message of how many emails you will get. The kind, order, and volume of emails has to be created specifically by every service, and there's nothing automatic about it. Yet it is very seldom a system will tell us how much they are going to clutter our lives and generate noise when they ask for our email, and certainly not in big letters right next to the field in the form. Same for notifications or badges. Systems that charge more money than advertised will be slapped down by government and banking in no time, but our other resource, attention, we never get a warning about.

How much resources does this use from my society or ecosystem?
I have no idea how to operationalise this. I think I would want to know if using ride-shares are clogging the streets more, or becoming popular as a service creates more greenhouse gasses. Currently this data is never surfaced unless it is by clever journalists and statisticians, or if a company is particularly proud of one aspect but then hides the rest. However, it is a question that digital design must surface if we have to answer Is This Good For The Planet? but may also be unanswerable because of how digital design is layers and layers of providers and subsystems on top of each other all the way down--with Amazon Web Systems somewhere near the bottom.

I want Good Digital Design to mean that the externalities of the product or service, all these effects on our society and our planet the product has beyond what it offers to users, have been made visible so that users can make choices along their personal values. 
I want the current systems that hide these effects to explicitly be called Bad, no matter how unobtrusive or timeless they are.

ls transparency going to give away the secret business model, and stop somebody from making a buck? So what, our planet is about to kill us, and we are having a tough time getting along in our own cities and countries, thanks to precious business models whose secrecy allows a very select few to manipulate us all for their own gain. As a species we can't let this continue any more than we could let soft-drinks contain deadly amounts of calories and not tell us. We need to be able to make decisions, individually and collectively.

I am aware that there's a paradox about writing that in order to evaluate designs for being fit along lines that turn out to be non-capitalist we have to examine how designs relate to capitalist. That stems from the fact that that the needs of capitalism and global power grabs just underpin everything we do right now, and the havoc digital brands are wreaking is from how they try to hide their processes. Is It Good for our society and our planet has to be answered by looking at the things are shit for our societies and our longevity on this planet as a species, and those things may be externalities, but they are the result of unfettered capitalism not considering them its problem.

Examples of Critiques

An example of a critique is this article examining ways that scarcity is shown on product pages to prompt people to hand over money. Some of these methods rely on creating the idea of scarcity, some of them rely on things actually indeed running out to pressure you to buy, and some show just the state of affairs. It is all really subtle and opinions will differ, but the big question is what are transparent ways to communicate that a product is running out without being sleazy?

Another example of a critique is this article about the mechanics of the attention economy. It's strength doesn't just lay out these mechanics that grab and keep our attention, but is willing to take a stand on whether this is actually beneficial or not, with examples of what goes over the line and what not, based on non-capitalist assumptions of What Is Good. Many articles out there explain these mechanics too, but this one is comprehensive and, in contrast to most other ones I read, is not neutral or even praising the attention economy.

I have been playing with this tool that visualizes privacy policies, and it is really good at showing just how wishy-washy they are, how very much most policies of the big companies do not disclose what they actually do but just hide behind words like "analytics" and trusted third parties. I am personally thrilled the new European GDPR regulations are poised to put a stop to these blanket checkbox policies and will make sites have to be more explicit. It may end up as empty as the cookie notices are in the end, but I am hoping the EU learned from how the Cookie Directives, meant to give European users direct information over how their data was being used, ended up being subverted to be meaningless, and have crafted better rules. The work I have done crafting new T&Cs for a client certainly seems to indicate so.

I have no simple closing paragraph here, with a pithy slogan and a great direction to go on. As a digital designer I know how beholden I am to employers and clients for food and shelter, and sometimes I tire from the battle to make something Good along the lines I wrote about here considering I still have to fight simpler fights like not having too many menu entries and not making everything configurable because that is easier than making design decisions. I need help to Do The Right Thing at work, and I am hoping the GDPR regulations will help, and louder voices critiquing along non-capitalist lines will help. As much responsibility digital designers have, we actually do not get to make many significant decisions about this ourselves--we end up designing not the digital world we want, but that makes money, even though we know we have to stop doing so.