Ethics and design: Doing the right thing

Designers should feel compelled to strive for an excellent product. Stress levels, customer satisfaction, how a company conveys itself – it all relates back to the quality of design. Whether it’s a 16th century painting, an online survey, or a modern voice interface, the way things are designed can have a profound impact on our experiences with them.

Why should anyone spend time on good design? Why not just spend it on “good enough” design or impressive functionality? “Good enough” might make sense given the often-discussed limits on human attention, memory, and sensory input. If people’s short-term memory can only take in roughly seven units of information at a given time, and if the human eye takes in less than the typical smartphone camera, then who is going to notice if our design work is cursory? This challenge to good design becomes even stronger when we talk about spoken language as a design medium. While visual information can remain on a screen in front of you for extended periods of time, allowing you to overcome your processing limitations and take in subtle details, spoken word is ephemeral, fading just as fast as it arrives at your ear.

Let’s stop right there and agree on this: “Excellent” design should be the goal. “Good enough” just won’t do.

When considering why “good enough” is even considered, the supposed limits to human attention and memory are presented as Exhibit A.

However, those are not as clear-cut as some think. For example, the finding that short-term memory has a limit of “seven plus or minus two” units of information, a theory put forth by cognitive psychologist George Miller in 1956, only refers to recall, not recognition. In other words, if something stays in front of your eyes for you to process for an extended period of time, you can remember a lot more. The same thing goes for the limitations on your eyes. Sure, if you only look at something for a brief moment, you will take in fewer “megapixels” of information than your smartphone. But if you can watch for a while, your eye can take in an extensive amount of information. By the same token, good designers can enhance an auditory experience by not playing out too much information, and also by allowing people to hear information played repeatedly. So hold off on arguing for keeping design “good enough” because no one can process it anyway. These processing limitations can easily be circumvented.

Above and beyond the fact that people can and will notice when your designs are sub-standard, there is an even more important reason to design well: Because it is the right thing to do.

Bad design causes stress. Physiological indicators of stress such as an increase in both heart rate and galvanic skin response (aka sweat) have been shown to correlate with bad design. We also know this intuitively. Have you ever had the experience of filling out a bunch of information about yourself on the web, hitting “Submit” only to be told in bold red letters that you missed some key piece of information, and the information you originally entered is now all gone? Ugh! I felt my heart race just writing that. Bad design is literally bad for your health.

My point is this: Ethics and design are linked. Because bad design is bad for people’s health, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to do our best design work all the time.

Many of the greatest writers, musicians, and thinkers have followed this belief. There was Le Corbusier, founder of the international style of architecture who felt ethically compelled to create usable, livable spaces for modern people that would rescue them from the teeming Parisian slums. The Renaissance painters of Northern Europe went so far as to suggest that the excruciating detail of their paintings (check out the mirror in the background of The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck and have your mind blown) reflected the hyper-clarity of their maker’s all-seeing eye. Whoa. Clearly, “good enough” was unacceptable to these great thinkers and artists – people who saw good design as the right thing to do – and it should be unacceptable for software designers as well.

Good design in and of itself sends a message. It communicates that a company values the inherent worth of all people and wishes to make the lives of those people better. Good design lowers the price of admission, allowing more people in the door by circumventing their physical and mental limitations. And, by the way, if we are removing barriers to use then one can no longer argue that we are “needlessly” spending the money of our employers and their clients. Companies that embrace good design are simultaneously doing the right thing while also clearing the way for more customers.

The corollary is that if a company decides not to go the extra mile, and allows their customers to pull out their own hair trying to enter contact information on a website, that lack of investment also communicates a message: That this company does not care about people. In addition, they have maintained the barriers to use that, if removed, could have increased revenue.

Of course, a definition of good design is hard to pin down, but certain processes are mandatory, including vetting the design with colleagues and the users themselves. Also mandatory is adherence to guiding design principles. If you do not already have a set of guidelines, Jakob Nielsen laid out ten heuristics of good design almost two decades ago, and they remain as useful today as they were then. They include things like speaking in the user’s own words, employing minimalist design, and allowing users to recover from errors. These principles apply regardless of whether we are talking about graphic user interfaces (GUI), voice user interfaces (VUI), or a “multimodal” blending of the two (MUI).

If we wish to improve the lives of our friends, our parents, our kids, our neighbors, then we have a moral and ethical responsibility to go the extra mile with design. Stress is enough of a problem in the modern world; and as designers, we have an opportunity to do something about it.

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Jonathan Bloom

About Jonathan Bloom

Jonathan Bloom is a senior user interface manager for Nuance’s Enterprise Division. He joined Nuance's team in 1999 as part of Dragon Systems where he was the company's first usability engineer. He has designed both graphic and speech interfaces for IVR’s, dictation software, automotive, and mobile applications. Jon took a detour for some time to work for a startup called SpeechCycle (now part of Synchronoss) where he contributed to the creation of an infrastructure for generating completely data-driven user interfaces. He lives in New Jersey and works out of Nuance's New York office. In addition to managing a team of senior designers, Jon also sits on Nuance’s Innovation Steering Committee and continues to design on his own projects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the New School Graduate Faculty. Jon is also a husband, father of two, self-published fiction author with a black belt in Isshinryu karate.