Originally posted on Medium by Craig Walmsley

Good by Design?

It might seem obvious that design is good.

After all, design thinking is intended to be “human-centric”—it is constructed to take account of what people want and build solutions that meet their needs.

And taking account of what people want is surely ethical in some sense?

Well, maybe.

Design is “human-centric” — but only in a very particular respect.

In general, the mental model of design is how a business meets a customer’s needs.

And that’s pretty much it.

All the design tools we use and frameworks we deploy in design are geared around this relationship — a customer persona, the customer’s needs, a value proposition to meet these needs, the future customer journey, the customer experience — all the artefacts are built around the relationship between a businessand a customer.

And no-one else.

Valuing values

A simple, successful, and widely adopted example might be presented in the Value Proposition Canvas.

There’s a customer, with their jobs to be done, their pains, and potential gains.

And there’s a business, with its products and services, and its pain relievers and gain creators.

The Value Proposition Canvas

This is a great way to figure out how to make a customer happy.

But this canvas, and too often design thinking in general, isn’t focussed on anything outside the relationship between business and customer.

In part, that’s because the core design tools we use tend to omit the relations between people that would give them meaningful ethical content.

That is to say, they pay little attention to the customer’s friends and family, the company’s employees, competitors, or society at large.

Or to the consequences of a proposition in the wider world — the carbon footprint, or the length of time it would take for a product to biodegrade, for example.

Paying attention to just the business and customer means not paying attention to the ethical implications of design choices.

Which means that design, as its currently practised, is often amoral.

That is, because it is typically only focussed on meeting the needs of individuals in relations to a given business, it lacks the interpersonal dimension that constitutes moral decision-making.

Bad by Design?

That doesn’t mean design thinking is inherently bad — it just means that it kind of ignores the moral or ethical context of any given design decision.

Which has kind of felt OK up till now.

But it’s starting to feel not OK.

I’m pretty sure Microsoft didn’t anticipate that its A.I. chatbot would be spouting unconscionable racist diatribes within a day of its release. I don’t think Apple intended that Apple Pay users become convicted criminals. Who knew that Blockchain and Bitcoin would have such a huge carbon footprint ?

Single Use Plastic PollutionExcessive Energy ConsumptionDevice AddictionDisinformationPropaganda — these are just a small sample of the all too obvious problems that can arise from the decisions that innovators, technologists and designers make (or, to be more specific, just didn’t think about).

“Move Fast and Break Things” used to feel like a promise — but now it seems more like a threat.

New Tools Please

Few of these effects were intended — they just weren’t properly considered when the propositions in question were conceived and developed.

We need design tools that think past the traditional “business <-> customer” model.

Or, more precisely, we need to place that model in the context of its consequence — because it’s usually the unplanned and unintended consequences that usually have greatest ethical implications.

If we can map these consequences, we can weigh their ethical implications, and make suitably informed design decisions.

Mapping Impact.

If we’re going to do that we’d ideally work within a familiar framework — it’s always easier to adopt something you’re used to using.

So why not start with the Value Proposition Canvas?

It contains the core of the relationship between the business and the customer —it’s widely adopted, well understood, and an excellent way of formulating the essence of a business problem and its proposed solution.

The Value Proposition Canvas (Abstract)

And why not use that white space around it as the “consequence space” ?— this is where the consequences of the proposition would be felt, and any attendant ethical issues likely emerge.

The Consequence Space

This consequence space might then be divided into different areas of impact — the impact that this proposition might have on people; and that it might have on the wider world (indirectly impacting others).

The Granular Consequence on People + The Granular Consequence on the World

And we can then divide it down into somewhat more granular areas to give us a range of things to consider when we think about what impact our proposition might have in the world.

The Impact Canvas

The Impact Canvas

The objective of the Impact Canvas is to help design practitioners to identify the possible consequences of a new proposition as its being developed, to surface and mitigate any potential ethical issues it might create.

The consequence headings presented here are a first draft — different options might make more sense depending on the context and the proposition

And you could then ask yourself a set of questions under each of these headings.

Impact Canvas — Detailed Questions

Doubtless more can be added here — but these are hopefully a broad and comprehensive set of considerations that could help people think about what the wider impact of a business proposition might be.


Learn more about the Impact Canvas over here.


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