Has design lost its way? Mike Monteiro on why we need design ethics

"You've got a lot of kids who are coming right out of school and going straight into these giant companies and they're so excited to be at Google, so excited to be at Facebook, that it never occurs to them that part of their job is actually to ask, 'Why are we building this?'''
Has social media design lost its way? Mike Monteiro believes so. (Pixabay)
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When Facebook modified its privacy settings a few years ago, it changed one girl's life forever.

Bobbi Duncan was a college freshman studying in Texas at the time and she hadn't come out to her parents yet. They were devout Christian Fundamentalists, and she carefully monitored her settings to make sure they never find out.

Bobbi Duncan sang with the Queer Chorus at The University of Texas in Austin, Texas. She was inadvertently outed after joining the chorus's Facebook group. (Twitter )

One day, she joined a queer choir group in college and a member of the group added her to their public Facebook page. Facebook's privacy policies were designed in such a way that any group can add new members to it without requiring consent from the user. When Bobbi was added to the group, it went up on her wall and her parents saw it. They threatened to disown her, and she attempted suicide as a result.

Mike Monteiro is the co-founder and design director of Mule Design, a design firm based in San Francisco. He's a prominent member of the design community, and also an outspoken critic when it comes to the ethics of design. A few years ago, Facebook invited him to speak at their campus and he told that story to Facebook's employees. Midway during the talk, one person stood up and yelled 'it's not our fault, it's the choir group's fault!', according to Mike. He was disturbed by this, and saw that designers didn't want to be responsible for their work. Mike feared that design has lost its way.

What's wrong with designers?

Recently, a number of big Silicon Valley companies have been slammed for creating technologies that seem to do more harm than good. Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube were criticized for making products that promote compulsive, possibly even addictive use. The Center for Humane Technology, founded by a group of tech sector veterans, was created this month, and it recently launched a new campaign called The Truth About Tech, that lobbies for more responsible technology design.

We've got what I call the lost generation of designers right now- Mike Monteiro

Mike pointed out that designers aren't taught ethics in school. "You've got a lot of kids who are coming right out of school and going straight into these giant companies and they're so excited to be at Google, so excited to be at Facebook, that it never occurs to them that part of their job is actually to ask, 'Why are we building this?''' That should be a designer's core job, according to Mike.

Mike Monteiro is the co-founder and design director of Mule Design, a design firm based in San Francisco. He also speaks and writes about design ethics. (Jeffrey Zeldman)

The cynical explanation for the current state of design, Mike continued, is that designers just don't care. "We've got what I call the lost generation of designers right now," he lamented. His concern is that many designers in Silicon Valley realized that they could get rich by working in technology, and so they made that their goal.

The danger of edge cases

Another factor that contributed to the problem is the makeup of design teams. In the design community, designers like to talk about "edge cases," which refers to users who don't fit the average user profile. But there's a problem with that language, according to Mike. "Someone needs to define the edge cases. And when everybody defining that phrase happens to come from the same monoculture, the same background, then immediately everybody outside of that becomes a candidate to be an edge case."

He gave the example of Twitter. "The people who built Twitter were all white boys. They're not jerks, but they have a very limited understanding of the world, as I do, and so they never built it with the idea that you would tweet something and somebody would immediately reply 'I want to kill and rape you,'" Mike explained. "Because that never happened to them."

In order to make sure that a product accounts for all of its users' experiences, there need to be diverse teams. "If you're building a tool, a global product, the team that's building it should look like the world that it's going to live in."

Design schools should also be required to teach students about ethics. And finally, the profession needs to be regulated. "We've got to license [designers] because it's too dangerous now," Mike said. "Facebook has two billion users, and one percent of two billion users, which is within their margin of error for edge cases, is 20 million people. You can't play around with this stuff when your user base is this large. There's a lot of Bobbi Duncans in those 20 million people."

Mike Monteiro's advice to designers

If you'd like to become an ethical designer, the biggest question you should ask yourself is 'why?.' "'Why are we building this?' 'Why is this important?' 'And who does this affect?" he offered. You should also check with the people around the margins, because those are the ones who are going to get hurt.

A few weeks ago, Mike was chatting with a friend who teaches at a design school in California. Mike asked about his students, and was glad to hear that they're civic-minded and interested in helping their local communities. When he asked if this was different from previous years, his friend told him 'yes, previous students only asked about getting rich.'

"This gave me hope," Mike said. "I have hope that this generation that's coming after us actually cares about this stuff because there's no fixing us."