Drawing Lines in the SandThe ethics of designing technology products in 2020

Afshin Mehin, Anna Savina

Designing technology products in 2020 is not an easy task. From kids with phone addictions to increased state surveillance, we’ve seen the huge impact that tech has on people’s lives and society as a whole. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that if we’re going to work on a new tech product, it’s got to have a net-positive impact.

As we kick off the new year, we’ve taken a moment to step back from our day-to-day to take stock of what matters to us, and think about the type of studio we want to be moving forward. This perspective not only helps us better filter the projects we take on, but also gives us a clearer vision of how we’d like to execute on them. Here are a few things we look for when vetting whether a new project is a good fit for us:

 

Make something original

This is a timeless requirement for creatives and as a team that loves creating new human experiences this one ranks number one for good reason. Whether it’s a food delivery robot or a brain–computer interface, we love making products and experiences that the world has never seen. So when a client frames a new project as “Uber but for X” or “a device that needs to look just like an Apple product,” it’s often a warning sign that the final product will not be very original. We agree that great companies deeply understand their market’s needs, which is why these projects are often framed this way, but we strongly believe that in general people gravitate towards people, products, and brands with unique voices.

 

Always try to go from zero to one

This title is borrowed from Peter Thiel’s book “Zero to One”. Making a new product consumes a lot of time, a lot of capital, and a lot of the planet’s resources. Therefore, if we’re going to invest all this, we should know that the end product will create a ton of value for people. In other words, the benefits a product provides will produce are a step function in improvement for people.

 

 Don’t create digital crack cocaine

Habits are incredibly difficult to break. That’s why it’s really important that people form positive habits. In the last several years, technology has been building some pretty terrible habits, whether it’s young kids glued to iPads or middle-aged people not getting enough exercise. We believe it’s important to use technology to enable healthier bodies and minds, whether it’s allowing people to better manage their screen time or encouraging more physical activity. These habits will result in a higher quality of life and stronger social bonds between people.

 

 Wag your long tail

Historically, huge markets have been great. The more you sell, the more money you make. The downside is in the process of trying to identify a target group within that giant market in which a lot of people have been averaged out to become a big, beige, generic goop of a market. In terms of providing inspiration for our design team, we often get more inspiration when designing for what Chris Anderson calls the “long tail,” a term referring to selling a smaller volume of product to a larger number of diverse niches. This reframing of what a market is has helped spawn companies that intentionally design for new market segments that were previously ignored. One great example of this has been the Walker and Company brands, which specifically create grooming products for people of color. The best part about a company like this is that not only are they doing good, but they’ve also been building a great business in the process, getting acquired by Procter and Gamble in 2019.

 

 Get good at zooming out

As designers, our ability to zoom in and out of a design problem is one of our superpowers. But more and more, our ability to zoom out will be vital to making systemic changes through our design. This ability to zoom out allows us to understand the larger context of our work and identify our intellectual blind spots. Once we can identify these blind spots, we can work with experts in other fields to help fill them. This can include connecting with materials scientists, recycling operators, and policymakers to better understand the future opportunities and challenges that different technological or social shifts could enable.

 

 Don’t treat manufacturers like vendors

As the manufacturing industries slowly transition from a take–make–dispose model to a more circular model over the decades to come, it will be increasingly important to find partners that are able to combine resource-smart production processes with the highest-quality materials. Knowledge of these process and material innovations will not be equally distributed among manufacturers, so the process of finding these manufacturers and material vendors and building strong relationships with them will be vital to making a larger impact.

 

Imagine where products go when they die

In order to really understand a product’s net effect, we need to consider its entire lifecycle. This extended perspective means we start from understanding where the raw materials for a product come from and follow through to discovering how the product is disposed of at the end of its life. This perspective is something that policymakers are also tuned into as governments start enforcing extended producer responsibility legislation, requiring brands to take responsibility for how their product gets disposed of after people are done using it.

 

 

Our hope: bringing meaning to everyday life

Our hope is that our process and approach to choosing design projects allow us to create products that help people be both more productive and more connected to the world in a meaningful way. We hope to develop technology that provides the greatest value to people without having a negative impact on the planet. We believe in technology that empowers people to do things that make them feel alive and, ultimately, creates space to feel more human. 

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