Designing against a Data Dystopia

Given that SXSW has been cancelled this year due to Corona virus, I have decided to go back and write about some of the presentations I went to last year (2019). This SXSW talk was given by Agnes Pyrchla. She is the Creator of the Creative Process for Black Mirror.

My notes:

Agnes starts her talk by defining dystopia.

Dystopia is an imagined world where people lead dehumanized, fearful lives.

She prefaced the talk by explaining that this thought experiment is not to predict the future but to redefine the world. In order to do this as designers we need to focus on scenario planning. We need to plan not only the best case but also the worst case. By planning the worst case we can also unhinge all of our current assumptions.

“Now that we can go anywhere, what could go wrong?” By asking ourselves this question we allow ourselves to give in and define all the assumptions we have. In doing this, we can then prepare against them.

Tools Design Teams can use (or a dystopian thought experience if you will):

These tools begin with the 4 C’s divided into 2 main categories. The first is character which is comprised of company and customer. The second category is setting which involves category and culture.

Company:

This is the heroes versus villains. An example is ThirdLove (hero)versus Victoria’s Secret (villain). Both of these company’s sell relatively the same product. However, the way they market and promote body image is vastly different. ThirdLove promotes healthy body images, by including models of more than one shape. They market towards the average individual. Victoria’s Secret on the other hand tends to market with the same kind of figure and does very little in terms of promoting healthy body images.

In this example the villain is actually the more successful/well-known company. So what if you and your company is the villain? What would make you the villain? Using that assumption of how you might get into that situation, you can proactively protect yourself from falling into it. By designing against the ideas that could potentially make you a villain you can save yourself from becoming one.

Customer:

There are many kinds of behavioral archetypes which is what Agnes focused on in this section. Every archetype has a goal, fears, weaknesses, talents. By designing for these archetypes you not only appeal to more people but you can also help protect yourself from future misuses of your product. By tuning in to the archetypes you can start to anticipate future malicious behavior. Is it possible for people to misuse your product for bad things? How would they potentially do that? By identifying that you can build ways to stop your product from being a dangerous thing.

Category:

Everything about data, how its collected, stored, and used, is political. Data can provide so much insight into so many aspects of your product. In the above section we talk about the customer, there are so many kinds of customers and they all have varying backgrounds/ cultures/ identities. This alone makes it easy for something to benefit some while harming others. It’s important to ask yourself if you are creating something that might be an advantage to some but a disadvantage to others?

Culture:

This section is more about how you want to run your company/handle your product. How do you think about people’s vulnerabilities in a different situation? How can you make sure that people aren’t being exploited, discriminated, and wronged by your product or the people using it? By designing against this you can ensure you build a culture built on strong morals.

Focusing on the negative sides of your customer base can be hard, and some companies don’t want to do this. They want to believe that their customers always have good intentions, and that is a good way to run a company (treating people like people) but it is a bad way to design things. If you don’t plan for it, it will happen. So even if you have to hide this way of thinking from the upper management, I highly encourage you to think about the bad intentions and design against them.

In conclusion:

By asking these questions and thinking about all the bad things that could potentially go wrong you are in turn identifying what you need to solve for before releasing your product to the market. You can design around potential misuse before it becomes misuse.

Written by

UX/UI Designer in Austin, TX.

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