In defense of negatives
The definitions we use to describe what it is that we do – be it interaction design, service design, experience design etc – tend to be coached in positive terms. We talk about designing services that are efficient and that provide differentiation; that are useful, usable and desirable; behaviours that result in positive change.
And yet it strikes me that such definitions are unnecessarily narrow and borrow too strongly from the HCI/Usability roots of some segments of the practitioner community and do a disservice to the design component of the equation.
It can be argued reasonably readily that the practices of HCI and usability are necessarily aimed at producing positive outcomes for the end user. Reduced error rates, faster completion times, lower levels of frustration are all objectives for the HCI/Usability practitioner.
These practices can also be most readily identified with the evaluative, iterative and incremental improvement characteristics of engineering. As such, there is little of Design in these practices. They aim at taking the current state and improving it; or informing the upstream activities so as to avoid known issues down the line.
In this arena HCI/Usability are highly effective. And the growth of practices such as UI design and IA out of this HCI heritage have given us the same focus on positive outcomes. We take it for granted almost that IA and UX design are also aimed at producing positive outcomes. Whilst this might be argued for IA, with its focus on wayfinding, findability, and information structures, the assumption begins to collapse when applied to experience design and the areas of service and interaction design.
The reason for that collapse lies in the meaning of the word design when attached to services, interactions or experiences.Design is a thoughtful and intentional activity; a considered approach to achieving a specific outcome. That outcome may or may not seem positive when viewed from the perspective of the customer, especially when the intention – in, for example, the design of interactions to shift behaviour – is to deliver a negative experience.That the experience is negative should not automatically disqualify the activity from being design. Moreso, in defining design as being inherently to deliver positive experiences/services/interactions is unnecessarily limiting.
Nor, it must be said, am I arguing the case for design practice to be unethical. Rather, that the question of ethics is separate to an understanding of design methods and practice.To use a practical example by way of illustration, consider the recent practice of charging retail customers for the use of plastic shopping bags. This essentially punitive action is deliberately negative, and is aimed at encouraging a change in consumer behaviour. One can argue quite easily that the overall aim of the design is ‘good’, yet clearly the specific interaction is designed to be negative.
Horror movies are similarly designed to be frightening, and whilst the audience opt in to this experience knowingly, the experience itself can be categorised as ‘negative’.It is natural when describing our work to ourselves and to others that we seek to cast it in a positive light. But in doing so we confuse the designer’s moral and ethical approach to their work with the underlying nature of the work itself.It is the designer who brings an ethical stance to design. The designer who adopts a framework – moral, ethical, philosophical, and ideological – in their design practice. This distinction is meaningful from the perspective of understanding the character of design as a practice and also in framing our approach to design education.
If we define design as an inherently positive undertaking, then our education of designers runs the risk of overlooking the important personal ingredient that the designer brings to the table. That is, we must arm designers with the ability to critically assess and adopt a moral, ethical etc framework for their work.We also run the risk of losing or missing the opportunity to have a conversation with our clients about their own values and the role they see for our work. The presumption of positivity can lead to a misunderstanding of intention and method.
Further, the definition of design practice as an inherently positive force leads naturally to the evaluation of designs with positive outcomes as inherently ‘good’; and those designs leading to negative outcomes as inherently ‘bad’. Such a confusion blinds us to the quality of the design effort – in understanding human motivation and behaviour; the synthesis and abductive thinking needed to create an effective design; and the craft necessary to execute that design intent – and robs us of the opportunity to learn from that design and applying that learning to our own design practice.
We need to acknowledge and embrace the morally and ethically neutral nature of design whilst recognising the potential for positive change design affords. Simultaneously, we should accept that the responsibility for any such positive stance rests with the designer; and ensure that we are openly, rather than tacitly, applying a framework of personal values to our work.