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Responsible design; conscious design for today and tomorrow

In recent years, awareness has been increasing in the design community about the consequences of design. Are we designing for the wrong reasons? Design impacts not only users but also society as a whole and, if you really think about it, the whole planet. Even though designers are well equipped to design for all sorts of user needs, this new perspective demands a different methodology that goes by the name ‘responsible design’. Instead of creating solutions with the customer, the business, and the technical possibilities in mind, responsible design also considers the planet, society, and the community. Responsible design is an overarching term for many different disciplines that designers have been using for some time now.

Signals of responsible design

The push towards responsible design was initiated by designers but quickly adopted by consumers who have come to expect more from brands in the past couple of years. To illustrate how consumers deal with a lack of responsible design, we can give some examples.

  • Let’s start with an example that is not in line with an ethical perspective within responsible design, also called deceptive design. Imagine you are shopping online and you want to finish up and pay for the things in your shopping cart. You notice just in time that a ‘special offer’ has been added to your cart, and removing it is nearly impossible.
  • Another example from a sustainability perspective are software updates that don’t work on old devices, so consumers are forced to buy the latest phone or tablet even though the hardware works perfectly fine. A responsible-design approach in this case would be to limit useless features and additional design frills to stop the upgrade cycle and limit the amount of e-waste.
  • Generation Z was at the forefront of critical consumption, but the 2022 sustainability survey by Computer Generated Solutions, a USA-based ICT service and consultancy company, shows that older generations now also expect companies to play a different role in our society when it comes to sustainability.

This change in society is, among other things, fed by fast-moving technologies. Innovations like Artificial Intelligence demand that designers adapt and be aware of the (unintended) consequences their design can serve. Governments have been working on new strategies and laws but no real legislation has been passed yet. Despite the fact that advisory bodies developed ethical guidelines for governments and businesses to follow, protecting our society from the impact of design is a shared responsibility.

The opportunity responsible design provides

With the increased awareness, designers are now looking at concrete ways to apply responsible design to projects on different levels. In the coming years, we expect that INFO’s clients will pay more attention to this as well.

Clients will not always be aware that responsible design has been applied to a digital service or product, since it might only shine through in small ways in the customer journey. For example, how a digital product deals with someone’s scarce time and attention span or how the most sustainable choice is highlighted in a purchase flow. These examples show that responsible design should be considered throughout the complete design process, from initial strategy to detailed implementation.

From a different perspective, we see that investors like governments and impact funds increasingly demand that the digital products they finance take people’s privacy, safety, respect, and wellbeing into account. Applying these responsible design principles can help companies distinguish themselves from the competition. They will place the relationship between their brand and the customer in a wider perspective and not approach them as customers they want to sell stuff to, but value them as citizens, family, and community members. This responsible design approach will lead to radical inclusion and supports a purpose beyond profit. In the long term, applying responsible design could earn quality marks or might become part of other quality marks like B.Corp. Such an honorary title can be an extra incentive for consumers to choose a service or product.

 What we’ve seen

As described above, responsible design takes our design approach to a different level. How are services and products being used, and how does that affect the user and their environment? The work we do for the municipal pawnshop of Amsterdam, Stadbank van Lening, makes for a good example of applying responsible design.

Almost ten percent of Amsterdam’s minimum-wage citizens use the Stadsbank. Anybody can come here to take out a loan against submitted collateral, such as a golden ring or diamond earrings. INFO was asked to rebuild and optimize the pawn system and to improve the existing online customer environment. From a social standpoint, it’s paramount that customers are able to repay their debts as quickly as possible. To encourage this, customers can view and extend their pawn(s) themselves, as well as lower their loan, in the My Stadsbank van Lening environment. In addition to those improvements, customers don’t have to come down to the office anymore, which, especially during the pandemic, removes a significant barrier.

Besides lowering barriers for customers, we built tools to support the employees of the pawnshop in advising customers’ financial situations. It enables employees to connect customers (voluntarily) to the appropriate debt counselors, allowing them to exit the vicious cycle.

From a product design perspective, we took inclusion and accessibility (important disciplines under the responsible design umbrella) into account. This means that My Stadsbank van Lening was designed to ensure that people with disabilities can use it to complete tasks just as easily as the average user. The most important part of accessibility for a designer to be aware of is providing an inclusive and more equal experience to all users. Merely adjusting the written language to make it understandable for the majority of the users was not enough; we created tutorial videos to make sure all of the customers and their possible caregivers could understand how to use the online tools.

Advice on how to get started 

Today – Start with small decisions in your developing cycle

Applying responsible design to developing your service or product should be done throughout the full cycle, from strategy to implementation.

On a strategic level, challenge your mission, vision, and purpose. Does your company take society into account, or is it merely focused on making a profit? Does it only bring solutions to a small percentage of our population, or can it serve many people? Does it lead to unnecessary waste or does it help limit extra pollution?

On a product design level, you should be conscious of the implementation of responsible design disciplines during the complete customer journey. Think of usability, inclusion, accessibility, persuasion, privacy, and focus in a holistic way.

You can start small; think about all the small business decisions you make every day. Take time to reflect on the intended and unintended consequences your decisions bring about. This opens the door to having a conversation about social awareness within your organization.

Tomorrow – Choose your company’s position

As mentioned before, we need to be aware of the unintended consequences that fast-moving technologies like Artificial Intelligence have. With legislation lagging behind, we must take matters into our own hands and take responsibility for the way we implement technologies. The consequences for targeted communities, the environment, and democracy can be huge. So choose your company’s position wisely and start designing for the future with the help of an ethical framework – there are multiple examples available, such as Design Ethically (1). This framework can lay down a theoretical and philosophical foundation for your company and a toolkit of activities to support integrating ethical design into your company.

Day after tomorrow – Design for reuse

Designing your products and services with a holistic approach to society surely makes for a good start, but our business models and services need to change more drastically to move towards a circular economy. Let’s focus on designing systems for reuse. Product-as-a-Service subscriptions support models such as rental, subscription, and reselling. This is the way to make services and products available to a wider audience and avoid creating more waste.

Let’s use responsible design to make sure these new models work for businesses, people, and the environment. Keep reasoning and working from the perspective of an inhabitant of this earth who would like to keep the world livable for many generations to come.