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Creating sustainable and ethical digital products

After attending New Adventures in January, we were inspired by talks from Cennydd Bowles and Laura Kalbag.

Cennydd spoke of looking past the needs of users in the present-tense to the impact our designs choices could have on wider society, wildlife and the planet, both now and in the future. Considering the potential short and long-term negative consequences of our work, not just on the user, but elsewhere. While Laura spoke of web privacy and the sheer volume and detail of data stored about us, often assumed but very accurate.

Mat Hayward

Article by Mat Hayward

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  • Digital process
  • User-centred design
  • Strategy

Our process is based on user-centred design and finding the continuity between the needs of a user and our clients' objectives. Have we been giving enough consideration to future effects and wider impacts of our work, both human and non-human?

We care greatly about the positive impact that our work helps to create, so these talks have given us a lot of food for thought. As ethical and sustainable organisations, what things should Kind and it's clients be considering when developing products for online use?

User-first, but not last

User-centred design is an excellent approach to creating digital products that are usable, accessible and well-received. It is an approach that is adopted by the majority of high-performing digital teams, including Kind.

It's clear that social platforms like Facebook and Twitter have historically concentrated on the creating positive impacts for their audiences (whether that be advertisers or users). We would expect and accept that as the right way to do things. But since these platforms have reached the huge scale they are now at, the negative effects of wider society become similarly huge.

Most of these platforms are now taking steps to mitigate these issues, such as Facebook's fact checking and Twitter's ban on political advertising, and that is welcome, but the damage has already largely been done.

Even with good intentions, concentrating only on making things easier for users can have unwanted future consequences, so is User-Centred Design adequate when used in isolation? Maybe not. And how can we adapt our design process to create usable and useful products that are environmentally and ethically sound?

Considering collateral effects

During the analysis phase of a project, where we usually concentrate all of our efforts on uncovering user needs and understanding organisational objectives, we can take some time to consider and theorise as to what the future impact our design decisions might have not just on that user but wider society and the environment too.

How we do this is important. It will be easy for us to make assumptions based on our understanding and views of the world but those views are most definitely skewed and biased toward our own experiences.

We're already accustomed to user testing and research, so we already have the skills to expand the discovery process outside of the userbase. Including diverse audiences from inside and outside of our target group at the beginning will help to prevent those collateral effects that nobody wants.

We will need to reframe our thinking. Rather than simply looking at how our products can facilitate users, including our clients, in achieving their goals, we must talk to non-users about whether those user goals will have a potentially negative effect on them and consider whether they align with the common goals for society and the environment.

As an example, it would make little difference to most people using broadband or even a 4G connection if the download size of a webpage could be reduced from 2MB to 500KB, but there are additional positives of making a website fast and lightweight. To start lightweight webpages use less energy to load and saving energy is always preferred to using it, even if it's sustainable. Similarly, lightweight webpages will load much quicker on poor connections in less technologically developed areas, giving a more even footing where it is needed.

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Can it work in practice?

This is all a very considerate way to think about our work, but can it work in a practice in a capitalist society that, like it or not, requires us to 'make money' to survive?

When we attended the 1% for the Planet European Summit in 2018, one phrase stood out and has stuck with me ever since:

Nicholas Bornstein, Protect our Winters

Progress over perfection.

We're not going to be able to know all consequences to all groups and all environments, ever, and to even get to a point where we feel like we're doing enough to consider others will take time. We just have to make a start or risk going nowhere.

At Kind, we've already started. For our own website project we made many considerations about impact, but the decision we made to not track individual users is the stand out one for me.

It's easy to add analytics code to a website without thought for what data will be collected, which brings me to some of the many things we learnt from Laura Kalbag. While we can decide not to use the data that most analytics tools collect about our website users, it is still being collected and stored. Not only that it is being monetised and manipulated by the owners of those tools and their advertising platforms, allowing unscrupulous organisations to manipulate it and us.

So, to balance the need for privacy and the need for usage data, we're using Fathom, an analytics tool that doesn't follow users around the website, it let's us know what pages have been looked at, where visitors are coming from and what browser or devices are being used. After all, that's all we need. So why invade your privacy?

Helping our clients

It's easy on an internal project to add additional work to the process, but with the pressures of client objectives and budget restrictions, this approach could be a hard sell.

It's only by raising awareness of the potential negative impacts of design decisions to product owners that they can choose to avoid them. Our job, as always, will be to help them uncover the issues and provide suitable solutions.

The web was created and given to the public for free, built as an open and democratic platform to benefit everyone. When we build for it, we shouldn't lose site of that.

Mat Hayward

Mat Hayward is Co-founder and Partnerships Director at Kind