Moral Design

All good design is moral design, and only moral design can ever be good. Morality is seldom discussed in design circles, but it is, however, inseparable from the ultimate goals of any design, and thus any discussion that aims to evaluate a particular design or tries to derive principles for good design, cannot happen in isolation from a study of morality. The current poverty of moral discourse in design is what leads us to a very foggy and fragmented understanding of what it is that design should aim to achieve and how it should go about doing it, and as a result of this, also prevents conclusive judgments of the worth and fitness of a particular work.

To give a current example of a design pattern that is these days gaining traction: gamification. The idea of this design pattern is to turn the system at hand into a game, thus allowing the designer to channel into the compulsive weaknesses of the user in order to “guide” them along and make the performance of a specific action addictive and irresistible, much like training a dog to perform tricks by giving it little treats as a reward for successful actions. Now, the above pattern can be evaluated on its effectiveness, that is, how well it gets the user to perform a task that the designer wants them to perform; but doing this only gives us a very isolated assessment of the pattern’s worth when seen in its final implementation. To get a better idea of that we have to look at what it is that the designer wants the user to do in the first place, and why they want them to do it.

For example: social network games in which the player’s aim is to manage and grow some particular asset, like farms, cities and castles. All manner of tricks are used in such games in order to make them addictive, and in turn, to get a percentage of their players to part with their money. Such games doesn’t use gamification for their ends — they’re already games — but the implications are exactly the same here. The design decisions used in these games to keep the user playing are not moral because the direct result of addiction creation tactics is overconsumption, and although it is not immoral to play these games, pay for them, or have fun doing it, the intentions behind the underlying design decisions are skewed towards making money for the creator at the cost of their players' time, which is lost through overconsumption. The idea is not to enrich human life, but to keep the masses consuming, and by casting a large enough net they are able to also catch a few “whales” (the affectionate term that is actually used in the industry to describe large spenders) along with the sprats. And what is ultimately seized along with their player’s time is the player’s life, the very thing that good design should aim to preserve and elevate.

Life is the ultimate aim of moral design, which it must protect, advance, ennoble and enrich. Immoral design, which is also bad design, is the opposite. It takes life by stealing time; it impoverishes by pretending to be more than it is; it does not last; it deceives, harms, enrages and degrades. The difference between the two lies at the origin of the work, when the designer first establishes their true goals and decides whether it is to satisfy their destructively selfish aims, or it is to be something higher, something that respects and elevates people’s lives, something that they are not ashamed to put out into this world because they know that their heart lies in the right place; and if they fail to achieve what they set out to do, it will be but an error of affection, not ill work laden with guilt.

I will give one more example here to demonstrate the practicality of what I am talking about and its direct application to our work. Today, the direction of personal consumer technologies is towards accessibility, mobility and staying notified. Taken to an extreme, these three things turn into technologies of perpetual distraction, things that keep us mindlessly consuming content that we don’t want, everywhere we go, and when we find a break from that consumption we are summoned back through the device’s notification system. People are coming to realize the extent of the issue and are forming ideas to counter it (e.g. the slow web).

Certain popular websites and apps tend to care more about their bottom line than about their users' time, and so their aims are to suck you back in and keep you using their product or browsing their site. This is not moral because those design goals do not respect their users' time, nor desire to improve their users' lives. The products themselves are not inherently immoral (in most cases), but the design decisions that knowingly lead to overconsumption are. To remedy this, the designer should re-evaluate their priories and set goals that respect their users' time and give them as much of it back as possible. By designing for focus instead of consumption you treat the user as a human being rather than a resource to boost the page views or drive sales.

The design of software is different from that of the design of a chair or a building in that you have a much stronger influence over people’s minds and can push and pull them this way or that through a tactical use of design patterns that are known to influence human behavior. Simply changing the color of a button on a website affects the number of visitors that will click on it. A great deal more can be done, which is why morality is especially important in software design. Here, the designer is no longer responsible for shaping the physical goods of our world, they are shaping the virtual streets and buildings of our mind, and the way they shape them will ultimately mold the way we think and live.

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Dmitry Fadeyev
June 19, 2012