Growing Your Area of Concern

Imagine you’re a designer in a team tasked with bringing a product to market. What’s your area of concern?

Perhaps you think of design as your area of concern. You may measure success by the quality of the experiences people have using the product; user testing may validate (or disprove) this. You could also take a wider lens and consider the product as a whole as your area of concern. In this scenario, your role as a designer may take a back seat to your role as a member of this particular product team. You may measure the success of the product (or lack thereof) based on business metrics such as customer engagement, net promoter scores, or sales.

There are wider lenses than these. For example, you may think of yourself as a member of a company of which your product team is but a small part. You may take pride in the company’s overall performance. Or you could go even wider, and think of yourself as a member of an industry. (This lens is especially compelling when dealing with emergent industries that are vying to establish themselves.) Measures with these broader lenses tend to be more abstract; you may celebrate if your company has gained market share, but it’ll be harder for you to tie that increase with your contributions as a designer.

Still, there are even wider lenses. Your company exists within a society. You have a vested interest in having that society become ever better and more resilient. If your society is your area of concern, you may be driven to civic engagement. That said, your role as a designer in a product team also has an impact at this level, even though it may be impossible for you to measure the direct effects of your work at this level. The broadest relevant area of concern — the planetary ecosystem — is so large, and so complex, that your direct contributions may seem very removed from the whole. Here, too, your work has consequences. However, the connection between your role and the ecosystem seems so insubstantial that it’s easy to become blasé.

We must resist this urge to become complacent at the higher levels of abstraction. Growing our area of concern may not seem immediately practical, but it helps create a frame of mind that leads to principled work. Strive to think globally while acting locally — even if the effects of doing so aren’t immediately obvious.