Design and its Influence on Social Behaviour
Do designers have a social impact? Can a designer change global mindsets? Do we as designers understand our responsibilities?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the work we do as designers. We’re trying to design great and amazing products for people, but just scraping the surface of the effects and impacts these products could have on a bigger scale. We design on the level of individuals and the level of systems, everything we create has the potential to influence society.
Being a designer means that you will influence people and their perspectives on life. You have an influence on how they might move through their lives. You have the power to change their mindsets and steer behaviour. Designers can use this to their advantage, to do good and make this world a better place for all of us. Through design we can make people think about and act on the impact we have on society and our planet.
These days, designers have a much bigger influence on a product and service level inside companies and are accepted to play along with the big guys. At the same time, the scale of what we’re designing has shifted from stand-alone products to whole ecosystems of services, products and people.
However, now that we’ve got that recognition, we are blind for and don’t fully comprehend the responsibilities that come with this newly gained acceptance. Changing a simple button inside an app or slightly shifting a product feature could disrupt entire economies. And that’s something we can’t ignore.
We’re designing systems with bigger complexity
One of our biggest challenges today is to combine digital and physical worlds into a single customer experience. This is what’s been called Convergent Transformation. When companies think and act convergently, they increase the influence they might have on people’s lives. Individual data becomes more accessible which results in a more personalised experience. Companies can have much more granular 1:1 relationships and interactions with their consumers.
The combination of more individual data turning into more personalised experiences enables a greater amount of influence companies can have on these individuals. With all these different elements in place, all of them having an influence on the final outcome and experience, it’s easy to lose sight of what our responsibilities are as designers and to recognise what experience or shift in behaviour we’re indirectly designing.
That’s why we need to start looking beyond 1:1 interactions and problem solving. Enterprises have the power to bring disruptive economical changes and the opportunity to move whole communities. It’s up to all of us to use this not only to our own benefit, but to look further out and to use this power to the benefit of bigger challenges we face these days.
The power of a car sharing company
Take Uber for example. Design at Uber works on a vast global networked system. The company not only touches millions of people through its app, but is also a source of income for as many as two million drivers. They have introduced new business models and services all over the world. Their designers need to be thinking as much about individual interactions as about broader economic, cultural, and social issues.
That current awareness is in contrast with Uber’s historic treatment of drivers when lots of dark UX methods were used to manipulate them to drive more. Today, top of mind for Uber’s design teams is to enable meaningful work and upward mobility.
Instead of making drivers drive more, they see it as their obligation to clear the streets from extended use of cars and to start using the car more efficiently on the road. Uber is on a mission to change people’s mindsets of having to own a car. Reducing the number of cars will redefine what our cities could look and be like. As a result we could have more space for schools, hospitals and green areas. This will have an effect on life expectations, improve mental health, and lower the pressure we put on our planet.
So, you see that this 1 company, that one simple service, could have a greater impact on society and human behaviour.
Let’s think ethical
People may say that in our field the influence we as designers have, may not be so literally life-and-death. Honestly, I disagree. As a designer you do have a responsibility, you do have more influence on people’s lives than we might realise.
With every new product we share with the world, we need to consider the long run effect on society. So why shouldn’t we use this to our advantage and push people towards an end-goal which is ethical and good for us all? It’s time for designers to wake up and start designing behavioural outcomes we believe in and want to be responsible for.
Create to unlock
This is exactly what we tried to do when Plumelabs, a Paris based start-up, knocked on DCS’s door asking to help them design a personal air pollution tracker. First, we tackled it like any other design project at frog. We did extensive research with users, synthesised, tested concepts and eventually came to a couple of very interesting directions.
We quickly felt that this wasn’t enough. With something as intangible as air pollution, we needed to do more to get this product off the ground, to get people to wake up and act accordingly. We asked ourselves, what is it that this little device can unlock?
The answer came to us while we were having lunch at a rooftop garden, a nice green and breathable space in de middle of London. How did we find this place? We wondered. And how come we’re actually looking for something like this? What is it that makes us so happy being up here? That’s when we realised that this little device can actually create a movement, a community that stands for clean air. It could highlight heavily polluted areas, but more importantly, celebrate clean spaces. With all the data gathered from individual users, we could move governments to use ‘human-centred governance’ where citizens are at the core to lead change and collaboratively build towards a better future.
Design is about enabling behaviour change
We need to start thinking about the system that products and experiences are part of and start designing for the ultimate end goal we have in mind. Tech and data will only rise even further, which often strikes fear in the hearts of people. Yet there is nothing to be scared about. In a matter of fact, the use of data opens up so many opportunities.
When used with good intentions in mind, tech and data can have a great and positive impact on mankind, the earth and future societies. The combination of all these elements playing together has the potential to make us more human than ever before. We’re not designing products anymore, we’re designing systems that eventually will influence human expectations and enable a behaviour change.
The question is, with the influence innovation has on economics and human behaviour, how do you want to make an impact?