Responsible design and responsibility

September 29, 2019

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It’s a pleasantly rainy Sunday. Since I can’t mow the lawn, I’m stewing in my own juices.

(My neighbor will be in tears before the story is over.)

A few nights ago I went to a talk on “Responsible Design”. The premise was: technology is doing social harm, and designers, by considering a broader set of stakeholders, can mitigate that damage.

I don’t think that is wrong! I do think that popular tech is doing damage, and I do think we need to consider broader systems and stakeholders when we design solutions.

(Every hedge-word I use makes it clear a “but” is coming, eh?)

But the person giving the talk was a founding partner at some strategic firm that no longer does any low-level design at all. Big picture people. And he gave the impression that responsibility is more or less a big-picture problem. We’re saving the planet, was the subtext. What are you up to?

And that seemed a little unfair, given that the audience was mostly the sort of young designers who have time and ambition enough to attend work-related talks on their off hours (plus a few wolves in sheeps’ clothing, like me).

So I have two different trains of thought I could hop.

The first train is: why don’t designers design their conference talks? Producing a live, audio and visual experience for a specific audience to inform them about a specific idea seems like it’s absolutely right in design’s wheelhouse. So why is every design talk I go to a Keynote deck with font that’s too small to read and a take-home that can be translated as “I am cooler and more thoughtful than you?”

Since the first train is a boring and kvetchy train (and I have taken it before), I’m going to let it leave the station without me this time — but I will note its passing, because it is not, in the end, unrelated to the second train.

The second train is this: what does responsible software design (and implementation) look like when you’re not facebook or youtube? Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the software which is NOT related to social networking FAR outweighs the software that is. “It’s like an iceberg” &c, &c. In addition to your car, microwave, toaster, the electrical grid in general, and all the invisible infrastructural software that under-girds your life, the chances are excellent that your job is deeply tied to either the creation or the consumption of software, or, more likely, both. So that’s 40+ hours a week consciously interacting with “boring” software and countless more unconsciously basking in its quiet glow.

If a piece of software isn’t preying on subtle addictions, or subject to foreign interference, is it morally neutral? To see it’s moral consequences, do we need to have world-spanning vision?

I came home a few nights ago to find my neighbor on her stoop, quietly weeping.

She works an office job of the sort that would be familiar to lots of people; the office has a sales team and an accounting team and warehouses and shipments and it all needs to be tracked, and she (along with a whole team) does the tracking. She’s still a few years from retirement.

But the team has outgrown their old DOS software; it’s no longer being supported; their IT department has stretched it to it’s limits.

So it’s time for new software.

It’s not going to be done on time, of course. It’s over budget. It’s missing important features. My neighbor has been trying to keep up with her actual job while also being called into hours upon hours of training. Next week the old system will go down, and the new system will come up… eventually.

She was on her stoop in tears because it was Thursday night, and she’d been trying all week to do a month’s worth of work in 5 business days. Friday she’d have to stay until it was done.

She was not in tears because the new software was bad; it wasn’t perfect, there were going to be problems, but she acknowledged it was an improvement in many ways.

She was in tears because it was late, and migrating was going to take an indeterminate amount of time, and even though it was custom it involved a whole new mental model, so she had to learn the job she’s had for decades from scratch.

She is a level-headed, forward-thinking person who is not given to histrionics in any way, and she was in totally exhausted tears — and had started keeping a box of tissue in her car — because of a small custom software project that was fudging its timeline in a way I’d call “totally average” and even “unsurprising”.

Anyway, there’s good news: some steely-eyed designers with global vision have invented “responsible software design,” and it will save the world.

A postscript: Software keeping inmates imprisoned past their release

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