Sunday, April 30th, 2017

I have been thinking about the role of user experience design in the ever-increasing automation of everything.

Previously, when I thought about automation, it was in the context of manufacturing, where robotics were and are supplanting human labor. But when you think about it, any technology or tool is really the amplification of human labor: the hole that two people can dig with their bare hands in one hour, could be dug in half that time by 1 person with a shovel. When we talk about designing software that is more user-friendly, more usable, more efficient, we are essentially faced with the same equation.

Two examples. Example 1: an information management system for a national grocery store chain is redesigned to be more user-friendly and lets the data team get work done more quickly. Example 2: A website for a utility company is reorganized so that customers can better find information, resulting in a reduction of calls to the call center.

Faced with such gains in productivity (aka less human labor needed to get the same job done) enabled by better software, where do the gains go? Who benefits and who loses out? Well, there is a number of scenarios that you could imagine.

For the data team, maybe that gain in efficiency can be reinvested into the company. Instead of doing rote data entry work, maybe one of the team members can do data analysis and derive insights that benefit the company and potentially benefits the customer in the form of lower prices. Or maybe a position on the data team is eliminated, and the savings are reinvested in the company, benefiting the shareholders.

Instead of answering many calls asking basic questions like “what is my account balance?”, the call center employees can spend more time helping out customers who are in dire need. They can point them in the direction of community resources that will help them make sure they have power throughout the winter months. Or maybe the call center manager decides she can run the operation with fewer employees.

Technology always reduces human labor. The direction in which the benefits flow, though, is variable: it can go to consumers in the form of lower prices or better service; it can go to employees in form of doing more meaningful work; it can go to management in the form of fewer resources to manage; it can go to the company in the form of higher quality work from their employees; it can go to shareholders (and capital generally speaking) in the form of a higher return on investment.

What is assured, however, is that less labor is needed for the same or better results. At first, it is just menial labor that is reduced. But eventually it can be labor that is of a higher order: artificial intelligence that detects cancer better than radiologists; or software that does a better job of discovery when analyzing millions of documents than lawyers can do. There are clear benefits to these advancements: millions of more people could have access to cancer screening technology that could save their lives, and potentially access to legal counsel could be made cheaper (wishful thinking?). But just as clearly there are losers: radiologists and law associates.

Technology’s rate of improvement guarantees these trends will only continue. So far, so good; this is just your typical somewhat dystopian analysis of artificial intelligence and technology. What does user experience design have to do with it?

There might not be a singular answer to that question. Designers and architects have contributed as much as anyone to the advancement of human civilization. They have also done as much damage as almost anyone. As Victor Papanek said, “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few.” By this comment Papanek was indicting the profession of industrial design for caring so little about the environmental impact of its work, and for attending to people’s (marketing-induced) wants rather than their needs.

Software design is only a newer front of this battle to constantly analyze the impact and value of what we as designers do. As designers of tools that have the potential to vastly reduce the need for human labor, what are our obligations? Do they differ in any regard from those who engineer these tools or those who manage the creation of them? What role do we really have in terms of deciding to whom the benefits of better technology will flow?

Ultimately, this is a social problem that will require social and political solutions, and a consensus on what kind of world we want to live in. Do we seek greater efficiency in order to do more work or in order to do less work and have more leisure? What do we do for those who have been “left behind” by advances in technology? (essentially this is the question behind the 2016 election in the United States).

And what is the role of design? For now, I don’t know. I do know that we should be cognizant of the impact of our work, both positive and negative. There are clear benefits to making software more accessible, more usable, more enjoyable – indeed that’s why a lot of us got into this profession, to help people at scale. We are fundamentally a service industry, and we want to help people get on with their lives and not be dragged down by miserable software. This is a noble mission, but we can’t be ignorant of the social and economic side effects of the work we do. Awareness alone should not suffice, but it is a first step.

Also published on Medium.