On Value

There is an interesting article over at TechCrunch about the tricks Facebook uses to get people’s permission to share more data with the apps on their platform. They’ve redesigned the permission dialog which asks the user’s confirmation on whether they would allow a particular app to gain access to their personal details. There are several big design changes, and all of them clearly focused on making the decision on the user’s behalf. It’s manipulative, and whether or not it is in the user’s best interest is certainly questionable.

When I wrote about moral design, and design values, I covered examples of bad design and the principles that can be used to avoid this, but I did not define exactly what I mean by value. When you follow a design principle, you should always expect it to aid you in the production of something more valuable. Good design by its nature is more valuable than the bad, and a principle of good design is concerned with the creation of the valuable, not the worthless.

Now, in my post on design values I’ve listed four types of bad design: distracting design, obsoleting design, authorless design, and lastly manipulative design, as in the case of this particular Facebook change above. There are undoubtedly more, but those are the ones I have covered so far in my previous posts. All of them share one thing: they are geared towards making money at the expense of the user. But if they are making money, aren’t those design decisions creating value? Not quite.

In the context of the discussion, the term value has two meanings. The first is the sort of definition of value you get from an economist, which is that of market value, or exchange value. This is what the market will pay for your product, no more, no less. If customers give you money, then this is how much value the product is to them at this particular time, and this value will fluctuate with the changing demand and supply of the good. Similarly, if the market values your company at a billion dollars, than that’s how much it is worth, according to this model. So according to this, the most optimized money extraction mechanism will generate the most value for the consumer and your company, and make you rich in the process.

The second way to define value is by basing it on a moral system. In Unto This Last, John Ruskin explains that the origin of the word value is the Latin valor: “Valor, from valere, to be well or strong (ὑγιαίνω); – strong, in life (if a man), or valiant; strong, for life (if a thing), or valuable.” Thus, what’s valuable is that which is good for life. At the very base we have the goods that preserve life, food and water, and here we don’t necessarily need ethics to tell us what’s good for us and what isn’t. But climbing higher, we have other products that nourish our life in other ways, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. In those spheres we have the worlds of design and art, and our understanding of what is good or bad here is shaped by our moral system, or in the case where this system is not fully developed, a basic metaphysical sense of life. We spend our lives in the pursuit of the good life, and consequently, what is valuable in those higher spheres is that which aids us in the pursuit of such a life.

Returning to subject at hand, we have again our two conflicting goals that the design decisions in question could aim to achieve. On the one hand we have the simple pursuit of money. By itself, the act of selling goods and services is not necessarily good or bad, being merely a transaction. But what if in the case of the transaction we find that what is given back is not so valuable at all, perhaps even taking away from us more than it gives? From a moral standpoint, that which does not aid the good life, and in cases even impedes progress, is naturally worthless, and possibly even harmful. This is the case with my four examples of bad design practices.

Exchange value itself is not completely separate from moral value. Given a completely rational and moral consumer, the monetary exchange value should reflect the good’s moral value. Given an irrational and possibly amoral consumer, the exchange value is disconnected from the moral value, and is more a reflection of supply and demand than anything else. Bad design plays on the latter market, exploiting the irrational and the impulsive for a short term monetary gain.

Good design on the other hand, which is moral design, respects the customer as a human being, as well as the work itself, wishing to enrich the world rather than take from it, and the value that it creates is weighed according to our moral understanding of what’s right and good. Unfortunately, unless both the designer and the consumer are aligned towards this goal, such design will not make money as efficiently as the sort of bad design talked above, which aims to exploit the market for its own profit. Only when the consumer shares your moral values and is able to choose the products that embody them, that is, they are able to make rational purchase decisions, can good design be more successful than the bad. This is not to say that good design isn’t profitable – it is, given that it finds its way to the right consumer – but that it is easier to make money from a less rational consumer whose decisions are dominated by impulse. This isn’t good news if all you’re looking for is money, which is why we are seeing, and will keep seeing, bad design that aims to exploit rather than enrich.

But the short term gain is ever so slowly pushed back by the long term loss. A while back I showed an example of the first floor of a beautiful Hindu-Gothic building being replaced by a soulless storefront, with its large glass panes plastered with ads. Why? To make money of course. But after all the money is accumulated, what then? Is not the building which you’ve butchered for the sake of money the very reason for wanting to create wealth in the first place? The moral foundation which shapes your idea of the good life also shapes the vision of the world in which you want to live in. Ignoring it dismantles the vision and creates a vacuum which is filled in reactively, not proactively, and the place where you will eventually end up in will not be very desirable to say the least.

The only way out is to better educate ourselves, both as designers and as consumers; to discuss, re-evaluate and form moral values; to decide what we really want to make of this life and to figure out how our work can contribute to achieving those goals.

August 2012