Unintended consequences: Is design the new single-use plastic?

6 May 2019

Image: © aryfahmed/Stock.adobe.com

UX expert Gareth Dunlop voices his concerns on the downside of digital product design, likening it to the scourge of plastic waste.

A number of powerful global forces have resulted in us living in an unprecedented era of unintended consequences.

Consider two of the most pressing environmental issues of our time: the challenge of plastic waste in our oceans, and manmade climate change accelerated through carbon emissions from the combustion engine.

When Mancunian electroplater Alexander Parkes pioneered 66 patents between 1841 and 1890 to do with the cold cure process for vulcanising rubber into derivatives of plastic – labelled by a peer as “one of the most valuable and extraordinary discoveries of the age” – he simply couldn’t have known how his chemical genius and the forces of globalisation would come together to threaten sea turtles, seals, sea lions, whales and dolphins with extinction over a century later.

‘While the consequences of digital technology may be unintended, we have far more evidence available to help us predict what they might be’

Similarly, when Samuel Brown, Jean-Joseph Étienne Lenoir, George Brayton, Nikolaus August Otto, Gottlieb Daimler and Rudolf Diesel all contributed to the evolution of the combustion engine in the 19th century, they couldn’t have guessed that only 125 years later there would be a billion cars, according to the International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers.

For some time, I have grown increasingly concerned that the world’s leading digital product designers are standing in the same shoes that Parkes and Brown et al stood in more than a century ago, on the cusp of impacting life on the planet in as-yet-unimagined ways.

There is a major and critical difference, however, between then and now: while the consequences of digital technology may be just as unintended, we have far more evidence available to us to help us predict what they might be. Unintended but entirely predictable, therefore.

Two recent news stories have further exacerbated this feeling of unease.

In April 2019 the BBC reported that the UK’s data watchdog was suggesting limits on letting under-18s ‘like’ content on Facebook and Instagram, and was seeking to ban Snapchat’s ‘streak’ feature. As the borderline-tech-addicted father of a not-borderline-tech-addicted pair of teenage children, I would enthusiastically support these measures without equivocation.

Sheryl Sandberg was in Dublin earlier this year to visit an anti-bullying initiative. This surely proves we live in an age where satire can’t be more impactful than reality. In this alternative universe, why not get Roy Keane to visit and endorse an anger management initiative? Or perhaps former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick could be appointed at government level to encourage businesses to do more to tackle sexism?

Sandberg presides over a platform that is staggeringly efficient at removing offensive non-revenue-generating content, but moves at glacial speed at curating revenue-generating ‘fake news’ or clicks, likes and comments.

‘We have known forever that “the market has no soul” but this market sits in our pockets and can be accessed with a swipe at any time of the day or night’

The god of the tech age is engagement. It demands of its followers in the design community that they build product that increases time on a specific app, frequency of use and type of use. Drunk and high on the revenue potential of their business model, which depends on these things, it would seem that no technique is deemed unsuitable in their pursuit.

We have known forever that ‘the market has no soul’ but this market sits in our pockets and can be accessed with a swipe at any time of the day or night.

Generating outrage seems to work well. Jealousy, fear (FOMO for our younger readers) and guilt all play their part. Bullying does its best to contribute to the effort.

It’s clear that the user’s time and attention (and personal profile and behavioural information, where available) are now the product, sold (literally) to the highest bidder.

In the early part of the 21st century, protecting our oceans and our planets is one of the major challenges humankind faces. We are living with the consequences of the actions of Parkes and Brown et al, but attribute no blame to them as they simply couldn’t have predicted the impact of their work. A century hence, when our great-grandchildren and their children are looking back at us, we will have no such excuse.

It’s time that the digital product design industry, of which I am a proud part, started embracing not just human-centred design but, to cite Emilia Palaveeva’s phrase, ‘humanity-centred design’.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user experience (UX) consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their digital products by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning and accessibility. Clients include BBC, Bord Bia, Firmus Energy, Kingspan, AIB and Tesco Mobile. 

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.