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  • Writer's picturekristensunny

Design to Do No Harm

A look at some the direct and indirect effects that product, service, or system designs may have on people's lives.

Ethical Design

As designers, we sometimes face ethical questions when designing the products, services, and systems that affect people's lives. We have to find that perfect balance of product viability, feasibility, and desirability, which is already a large undertaking. But we must go one step further and assess the potential effects, whether negative or positive, that our designs may have directly on users or indirectly on other people (like customers, relatives, or even communities). Of the products that prove harmful, some are designed with deliberate intent to harm, like military apps, while others have unintentional consequences due to a lack of forethought.

Let's take a look at some of the types of harmful effects that design can have. I've chosen to discuss the six types of harm found in About Face: economic, environmental, interpersonal, physical, psychological, and social and societal. I've also included examples of products or services that I believe either demonstrate each type of harm or have been designed to negate those effects.

“If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.” - Dalai Lama XIV

1. Economic Harm

Products, systems, or services can produce economic harm that may lead to a loss of money or savings, a loss in productivity, which in turn can lead to a loss of profits, or practices that augment economic disparity and inequality. The accelerated pace of technological innovation has drastically transformed many industries; positively, it has reduced production costs and time; negatively, it has led to job loss and the need for employees to up-skill or learn new technologies. Countries with the ability to adopt new technologies (and educate their population to use them) have a greater advantage than countries that don't, which leads to further economic and social disparity between nations.

Cryptocurrency: Positive and Negative Effects

Cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, were created to revolutionize the banking and financial sectors, with the aim to make monetary transactions faster and more secure. However, the unintended consequence was that it simultaneously appeals to the those involved in illicit activities like money laundering, the sale of firearms and illegal drugs, and even human trafficking. Due to the anonymous and encrypted nature of cryptocurrencies, it's difficult to combat these activities, protect customers, or form regulations on use.

2. Environmental Harm

Environmental effects are often related to issues of sustainability in the product life cycle. In many ways, digital products have helped protect the environment and reduce the harmful effects of the products and system used by prior generations. For example, most services now offer customers the option to communicate online, which reduces the production, consumption, and waste of paper products. On the other hand, the production of physical products, like computers and smart phones, have drastically increased companies' environmental footprint through harmful extraction methods used in manufacturing, pollution caused by transportation and delivery, and high energy consumption. These elements may not only harm the environment, but also the people and communities living in areas affected by production.

It's also interesting to think about the balancing act between digital innovation and sustainability. Many companies are able to reduce their environmental footprint and waste by creating more effective digital products, but this unfortunately can lead to higher rates of energy use and unethical sourcing of raw materials. It's up to us as designers and consumers to support the companies and products that are strategic enough to produce helpful products through sustainable practices and methods.

Enevo: Positive Effect

Enevo is a Finnish company that created product solutions to make waste management more effective. Using an Internet of Things tech suite, Enevo places sensors in dumpsters, which let waste companies know when waste bins are full. This reduces the amount of trips that waste companies take to empty bins but also helps them manage and analyze waste generation. Overall, Enevo's products help reduce operation costs, limit transportation pollution, improve recycling efforts, and increase supply chain analysis.

Enevo home page

3. Interpersonal Harm

Interpersonal harm can lead to humiliation, a loss of dignity, or a reduction in the quality of one's life. At its worst, this type of harm may lead to loss of life, as seen in the increase of suicide rates by teens and children due to cyberbullying. To prevent a design's harmful effect on users, this requires a deep understanding of your audience through continuous user research.

rethink: Positive Effect

rethink is an app created by a teen who saw the dangerous effects that derogatory comments and insulting language has on teens and children. Using a context-sensitive algorithm and smart keyboard to detect offensive language (in English, Spanish, or Hindi), the app nudges users to pause and think before they send harmful messages. So far, the app has been downloaded 500k+ times and has been used by 1,500+ schools across the U.S.

rethink home page

4. Physical Harm

When designing digital products, we don't always think about the physical effects they may have on users or others. Physical harm can lead to a sliding scale of compromised safety, injury, pain, or even death. It may lead to physical injury that has shorter-term or less complicated effects, like thumb strain from the overuse of a mobile app, or longer-term and more permanent damage, such as paralysis from a crash caused by distracting navigation or digital displays in cars.

Pokemon Go: Positive and Negative Effects

Pokemon Go is a mobile app that uses geolocation to create augmented reality for players to search and find Pokemon characters in the 'real world.' Some of the positive effects seen from the app's use is an increase in physical activity and in visits to museums, parks, and even historical sites. However, the game also creates potentially harmful scenarios, as distracted players have caused biking and driving accidents. Some players have even trespassed (whether intentionally or not) to find Pokemon or have found themselves in dangerous locations or environments.

Pokemon Go App Store page
Pokemon Go

5. Psychological Harm

Psychological harm from products can manifest in many ways, including addiction, low self-esteem, aggression, or depression and anxiety. Preventing these harmful effects, much like interpersonal effects, takes an in-depth understanding of users and anyone who may be indirectly affected.

Video Games: Positive and Negative Effects

Video games (and computer or mobile games) are naturally designed to be addicting for users, which can lead to intentional or unintentional psychological effects. Some of the positive effects that video games can have on players include an increase in social interaction and the formation of relationships with players from different backgrounds or experiences and a reduction in boredom, anxiety or depression (especially seen during the COVID-19 pandemic). However, practitioners have seen an increase in negative effects from video gaming: anxiety disorders, aggression, stress, loneliness, and maladaptive coping. Due to their addictive nature, video games have also led to a reduction in academic or work performance and a deterioration in personal and professional relationships.

6. Social and Societal Harm

Digital products, services, and systems may have far-reaching and long-lasting social and societal effects that we should consider when designing. These effects can include the creation or perpetuation of injustice, exploitation, or harmful policies. Consider the long-lasting, potentially detrimental effects of poorly designed election ballots as one example. One of the ways in which product teams can help reduce unintentional social and societal harms and design more mindfully is by diversifying user research and usability testing to ensure that we are designing for and considering all types of users.

Facial Recognition Technology: Negative Effects

Facial recognition technology is an investigative tool used by many law enforcement agencies across the U.S. to help identify criminal suspects and witnesses. Since 2011, the FBI alone has logged more than 400,000 facial-recognition searches. Numerous studies have shown that facial recognition technology is inherently biased and that these systems misidentify people of color more often than white people, women more than men, and elderly persons and children more than middle-aged people. It's clear that this technology's accuracy is largely affected by a person's race, gender, or age, which can have incredibly long-lasting, detrimental effects on individuals, communities, and society as a whole.

Image of facial recognition scanning
Facial Recognition Technology

Final Thoughts

As a designer, I often evaluate a product on its ethical design and implications for society. My background in human rights and advocacy provides me with a deep understanding of how individuals and communities are affected by policies, systems, and products, and it also gives me a lens through which to analyze the potential effects that a product can have on people. I commit to taking a mindful approach when designing and to create products that do no harm, or at the very least, minimize harm.


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