“The past year has been eventful,” read the screen (with just a hint of understatement) behind Spotify’s design director Nicole Burrow, as she spoke to the audience at Designing for Tomorrow last Monday evening (21 January). The event was held by Spotify Design and featured a panel discussion with It’s Nice That’s editor Matt Alagiah in conversation with author and designer Laura Kalbag; Deborah Goschalk, product manager at green-energy provider Bulb; Zander Brade, lead product designer at mobile bank Monzo; and Alex Macleod, design lead for platform and partner experience at Spotify. Under the microscope was the fascinating yet fraught area of ethics in design, and how designers can help build a better future and create more meaningful experiences.
First, though, Nicole Burrow provided a bit of context. It’s no secret that the ethical standing of the tech industry has suffered a series of blows in recent years, she explained. Whether it’s because of data breaches, the alleged addictiveness of screens, or social media platforms getting caught up in political issues, trust in tech is at an all-time low. It’s a situation which means companies and brands are being forced to reconsider strategies, placing users and their needs back at the centre of everything they do. In other words, companies are being forced to design ethically or, as Zander Brade put it, “to bake ethical design” into everything they do. But what exactly does this mean? And what harm can be done when companies choose to ignore this responsibility?
After Nicole’s presentation, which also looked at Spotify’s new framework for ethical design, Zander and the other three panellists took to the stage to unpack some of the ideas she had raised. First on the agenda was the question of how designers can build trust with their users, particularly when it comes to data privacy.
As all the speakers recognised, personalisation is still something users benefit from. Clearly, not all data collecting is bad, then. Alex Macleod explained how Spotify goes about making its processes transparent, making it clear why it’s recommending particular music to its users and, in turn, revealing how exactly it’s using data. Beyond just revealing this information, it grants users autonomy over it, she continued. Where unwanted suggestions are made, she explained, users have the ability to remove artists from their algorithm.
It was Laura Kalbag who made the most convincing argument when she told the audience, succinctly: “Don’t allow people to be data machines.”
The discussion also looked at how ethical design can encourage meaningful consumption. Over-consumption is a real issue for brands – particularly in tech – that, while wanting to produce ethical designs, need to function as businesses as well. Deborah Goschalk, whose company sells sustainable energy, provided useful insight on this question. For Bulb, meaningful (or, in this context, perhaps more sustainable) consumption of energy is literally the “purpose” and “mission” of the company, she said. Perhaps design-led businesses could similarly build better consumption into their models.
Afterwards, the discussion moved on to how designers can use their influence to champion ethical design and create more advocates out in the real world. An important initial question was: Do designers actually have a seat at the top table or do they still have a fight on their hands to get their voices heard in businesses? Zander from Monzo dismissed the question out of hand: “I’ve never bought that. I think designers have always had a seat at the top table and I don’t know any other profession that likes to create such a sense of suffering around this idea of being ignored.” On the whole, the panellists agreed that designers are listened to, today, more than ever before, and that their influence within organisations is profound.
At the end of the discussion, our panellists focused on avoiding bias and getting out of the designer echo chamber. Essentially, the theme of this part of the discussion was empathy, the central question being: How do we take responsibility for users whose needs don’t necessarily mirror our own? Laura, whose book Accessibility for Everyone looks in-depth at this precise issue, began by describing some situations that should sound an alarm bell in the audience’s minds. Using the example of designing a form, she said, “if you want to ask about gender and you only put ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ on the form, you have to ask: ‘Who are we leaving out?’”
Algorithms which make predictions about users, on the other hand, can both polarise societies’ political views and reinforce racial stereotypes or oppression based on biased data. Failure to consider the experiences of users with mental or physical disabilities, as well as marginalised groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, by designers can lead to the exclusion of sections of society. Ultimately, Laura added, designers should focus on preventing harm to marginalised and vulnerable people, respecting human rights before human experience.
Yet biases come in all shapes and sizes. For instance, Alex also pointed out that it’s also easy, particularly as a company operating globally, to find yourself in a Western-centric bubble. She explained how Spotify has tried to challenge this bias, which led in one case to the company launching a low-data product for countries where mobile data is less readily available than in the West.
At the end of the discussion, the panellists joined the audience for a drink and a bite to eat, and to continue the lively conversation. Then, to round off the evening, south-east London’s Poppy Ajudha took to the stage for an amazing set of her signature catchy, soulful tunes.
While the evening covered a wide variety of areas, there were some threads that ran throughout the discussion. Perhaps one of the most important was transparency and communication, which are at the heart of how designers can provide more ethical solutions. Despite coming from the worlds of finance, energy, graphic design and music, respectively, one opinion each panellist shared was that talking to your users is key. Be honest, don’t assume anything about them, spread accountability for their welfare, and never dupe them into consuming more than they need to. It’s no longer enough to just design without thinking about the implications of what you’re doing, they encouraged: take responsibility, have opinions on ethics and work to make solutions that don’t harm others.