Informing and Persuading

As more things become digital, those of us who design digital things — apps, websites, software — increasingly define how people understand and interact with the world. It’s not uncommon for digital designers to make difficult choices on behalf of others. This requires an ethical commitment to doing the right thing.

For information architects, the critical decisions involve structuring information in particular ways. Choices include:

  • What information should be present
  • How information should be presented (i.e., in what format or sequence)
  • How information should be categorized

The objective is to make information easier to find and understand.

At least in theory. Often, the objective is to make some information easier to find than others. For example, it recently came to light that tax filing software makers such as Intuit and H&R Block set out to steer customers away from their free offerings. Intuit even tweaked its site, apparently to keep public search engines from indexing the product. The goal in this case seems to be not to make information more findable, but less so — while still technically complying with a commitment to “inform.”

The same is true for understandability. A few years ago, when the Affordable Care Act was being debated in the U.S., a diagram was put forth that purported to explain the implications of the new law:

Understanding Obamacare chart

This is not a neutral artifact. Its primary design objective isn’t to make the ACA more understandable, but to highlight its complexity. (It succeeds.) This diagram intentionally confuses the viewer. As such, it’s ethically compromised.

IA challenges fall on a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, you’re aiming to inform the people who interact with your artifact about a particular domain. On the other end, you’re trying to persuade them.

Inform - Persuade

By “inform,” I mean giving people the information they need so they can make reasonable decisions within a conceptual domain, and presenting this information to them in ways they can understand given their level of expertise. By “persuade,” I mean giving people the information they need so they can behave how we want them to, and presenting it to them in ways that nudge them in that direction.

Informing and persuading are different objectives. In one, you’re setting out to increase the person’s knowledge so they can make their own decisions. In the other, you’re setting out move them towards specific, predetermined outcomes. In both cases, you’re trying to alter behavior — but the motives are different. By informing, you make people smarter. By persuading, you make them acquiescent.

I’m not judging by observing this distinction. If someone is engaged in self-defeating or otherwise destructive courses of action (e.g., smoking, gambling, driving while intoxicated), setting out to change their behavior could be the compassionate, ethical thing to do. So persuasion isn’t bad per se. Also, few projects fall on either extreme in the continuum; most lie somewhere in the middle. (Is it ever possible to not persuade when structuring information? I.e., all taxonomies are political. Even this post is an exercise in persuasion.)

That said, if your goal is to make information more findable and understandable, you will sometimes be tested by the need to persuade. If the offering truly adds value to clients and to the world, and aligns with your own values, you’re unlikely to face a tough ethical call. Such offerings “sell themselves” — i.e., the more you know about them and their competitors, the more desirable they become. The problem comes when you’re asked to sell a lemon or to nudge people towards goals that are misaligned with their goals, your goals, or society’s goals. There’s no ethical way to bring balance to such situations; often the appropriate response is to take a “hard pass.” (I.e., not engage in the work at all.)

Environment-Centered Design

Dan Hill on the impact of technology on the urban experience:

the smartphone, as the most obvious manifestation of the broader tech sector, is shaping the way we live and interact with each other, and thus our cities and habitations. And it is becoming clear that this is not necessarily all good.

User-centered design is partly to blame:

Our design practice is not yet sufficiently advanced to handle what economists call the ‘externalities’ of tech (somewhat misleadingly, as if an iceberg’s tip is ‘external’ to the rest of the iceberg.) The relentless focus on ‘the user’, which has driven so much product and process improvement over the last two decades, is also the blindspot of the digitally-oriented design practices. They can only look up from the homescreen blankly, through the narrowly focused lens of ‘the user’, when asked to assess the wider impact of such services when aggregated across the city.

The relentless focus on ‘the user’, which has driven so much product and process improvement over the last two decades, is also the blindspot of the digitally-oriented design practices. They can only look up from the homescreen blankly, through the narrowly focused lens of ‘the user’, when asked to assess the wider impact of such services when aggregated across the city.

So interaction design and service design produce insight and empathy for individual experiences, but produce little for collective impact or environmental empathy.

Mr. Hill argues that an effective approach to using technology effective in these domains requires looking beyond user-centered design towards an “equal and opposite” approach of environment-centered design:

The core ideas of strategic design – of integrative thinking and practice; of framing questions and challenges appropriately; of working at multiple scales, paces and vehicles; of taking on complexity and making it legible and malleable via synthesis; of addressing systemic change; of stewardship – means stretching design’s definition in this direction, perhaps just as design has stretched to drive tech forward.

As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, the way we use technology at urban scale will effect profound transformations on the day-to-day lives of the majority of people in the planet. “Tech” won’t be something they’ll be able to opt out of; it’ll be the infrastructure of their lives. It’s imperative that designers start to think beyond the effects of technology on individual users.

The city is my homescreen

The Limits of the Ethical Designer

Curt Arledge writing in his company’s blog:

As our discourse about design ethics matures, we need better models for understanding this big, squishy subject so that we’re not talking about everything all at once. What does it really mean to be an ethical designer? What is most important, and what should we care about the most? What power do we really have to make a difference, and how should we use it?

Mr. Arledge offers a model that divides the areas of concerns in three layers:

  • Interface
  • Business
  • Infrastructure

The stack goes from specific and concrete at the top to systemic and abstract at the bottom. This seems like a useful way of understanding the domain — and especially the parts where designers have the ​most influence on the problem.

That said, design work is medium-agnostic. There’s no reason why designers should constrain themselves to only the layers that have to do with the ​interface. There are many problems at the business and infrastructure layers that would be well-served by strategic design.

This is one of the central points in Living in Information, where I present a similar model. It’s encouraging to see other designers thinking along these lines.

Design Ethics and the Limits of the Ethical Designer

Facebook’s Reverse Halo

Last month I pondered whether it’s time to leave Facebook. Things have only gotten worse for the social network since then. It seems every week now we learn of new ways in which the company has mishandled the personal information we’ve entrusted it. A couple of days ago, The New York Times published a report that alleges the company shared their users’ private information with various other large tech companies. Just yesterday, the District of Columbia sued Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica incident. Wired has a running list of all the scandals thus far this year.

Still, results from a new study from Tufts University​ suggest it would take a thousand dollars for a typical Facebook user to leave. That sounds high for the way I use Facebook. Many other information environments have more value to me. Since I wrote my “is it time to leave?” post, I’ve significantly reduced my interactions in Facebook; I haven’t missed being there as much as I thought I would.

Facebook owns other properties that I’d find much harder to give up. One in particular — WhatsApp — would be worth a lot more than a thousand dollars to me, since that’s where I stay in touch with my family and friends in Panama. (I’d love to get them all to chat with me on Messages.app, but that isn’t likely to happen since many of them are Android users.)

The stuff I share in WhatsApp is much more sensitive to me than anything I’ve ever shared through Facebook. When I read stories like the one in the NY Times, I worry. I wonder how much sway Facebook (the company) has over the way WhatsApp handles personal data. It would be a real loss to me if I had to leave this environment where I meet my loved ones. That said, the constant stream of news regarding Facebook’s cavalier attitude to privacy is eroding my trust in WhatsApp as well.

Designing for the Brilliant Cacophony

Mike Monteiro writing for the Adobe Blog:

When I was a little baby designer I was taught that good design meant simplifying. Keep it clean. Keep it simple. Make the system as efficient as possible. As few templates as possible. I’m sure the same goes for setting up style sheets, servers, and all that other shit we do. My city would run more efficiently if we simplified everything.

But I wouldn’t want to live there.

My city is a mess. My country is a mess. The internet is a mess. But in none of those cases is the answer to look for efficiencies, but rather to celebrate the differences. Celebrate the reasons the metro stops aren’t all the same. Celebrate the crooked streets. Celebrate the different voices. Celebrate the different food smells. Understand that other people like things you don’t. And you might like things they don’t. And it’s all cool! That’s what makes this city, and all cities, a blast. And when all these amazing people, some of them who we don’t understand at all, go online they are going to behave as inefficiently in there as they do out there. And that is awesome.

And your job, the glorious job you signed up for when you said you wanted to be a designer, is to support all of these people. Make sure none of these incredible voices get lost. And to fight against those who see that brilliant cacophony as a bug and not the greatest feature of all time.

You are our protection against monsters.

The call for diversity resonates with me. (It’s the subject of the keynote I’ll be delivering at World IA Day 2019.) Being aware of the distinctions we are creating (or perpetuating) is particularly important for designers who are working on the information architecture of these systems, since the structures we create tend to be longer-lived than other parts of the information environment.

That said, it’s impossible for the systems we create—and the structures that underlie them—to represent every point of view. Designers must make choices; we must take positions. How do we determine what voices to heed among the cacophony? In order to know, we must ask another set of questions: what is this information environment ultimately in service to? What am I in service to? Are the two aligned?

Who Do Designers Really Work For