Using our Superpower for Good

Image of JD Hooge speaking at Ted X Portland

Written by JD Hooge, Founder and Chief Creative Officer

The following includes excerpts from my TEDx talk in April, 2019.

My wife and I have three amazing little humans at home. That means there’s a lot of superhero conversation happening around the dinner table. So, it’s not infrequent that I get asked the question, “Dad, what’s your superpower?” I typically choose something like x-ray vision or super speed, just playing along. But on one of those occasions, I actually sat back for a second and seriously considered the question. And I earnestly said, “my superpower is design!” They looked at me like… Ummmm, you’re a nerd. I started in on a lecture about design and they tuned me out in about thirty seconds.

But it’s true. Design really is a superpower. And like the late, great Stan Lee reminded us, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

This couldn’t be more true in 2019 as, over the last two decades, technology has changed everything. Communication. News. Transportation. Health. Friendships. Family. A British study found that we check our phones, on average, 220 times a day — about twice as often as we think we do.

Technology has changed our daily behaviors faster than we could see coming. Faster than we can realize the consequences. The digital world, as we’ve designed it, is not only benefiting some more than others, but also dictating the rhythm of our lives if we’re not deliberately managing our own attention.

Statue depicting people on their phones on a bench.

In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.

Jenny Odell author of How to do Nothing

Ex-Google ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Humane Tech, Tristan Harris has spoken about “the race the bottom of the brainstem, to get people’s attention.” Perhaps, like me, you live-streamed Harris’ new age-y summit (that the New Yorker expertly reported on in August).

Photo of the book "Ruined by Design" by Mike Monteiro

Maybe you picked up Mike Monteiro’s hot-take “zine”, Ruined by Design or Amber Case’s Calm Technology.

The point is, for decades, most of us have focused on the sleek, seamless benefits that new technologies provide us. But the tides have turned as we realize how technology is hijacking our attention and amplifying our biases, among other challenges.

Screenshot of article, How Nexdoor Addressed Racial Profiling on its Platform

Such as the challenges at social networking service, Nextdoor, where they have recently rolled out newly-designed forms aimed at correcting the app that has reportedly enabled racial profiling by its users.

And the ways in which automated hiring and advertising algorithms can confirm and reinforce implicit biases.

And the widely reported sexist features in women’s health apps like Glow and Eve. According to writer Jayne Williamson-Lee, “It’s a running joke that it’s not hard to spot a fertility-tracking app designed by a man.”

There are countless examples of designers and technologists who didn’t truly understand human needs — and of things we have created that often benefit one community while making life worse for others.

It’s a running joke that it’s not hard to spot a fertility-tracking app designed by a man.

Jayne Williamson-Lee

New Solutions

Many of us are waking up and beginning to reevaluate our relationships with technology. Tech giants are thinking deeply about their role in society, looking for new solutions for living up to their responsibilities, and are racing to see who is going to put the human back at the center — better and faster.

And, meanwhile, many of us are wondering what we can do. How do we build a future that empowers human needs and champions diverse perspectives?

How do we build a future that empowers human needs and champions diverse perspectives?

Harris and his Center for Humane Technology — who has been pressuring Silicon Valley giants to take ethical tech seriously — have presented a very complicated “full stack” framework, introducing new language and guidelines for “reversing human downgrading.” Some pundits argue that the presentation lacked substantive solutions and disregarded algorithmic bias or discrimination. Others say Harris missed the target with his ominous tone and overly worked engineering-speak (reminiscent of what got us here in the first place).

Others are spearheading more tangible solutions, with ethical design frameworks and toolkits popping up. Amber Case created the Calm Design Quiz (in beta), complete with a 5-point scoring system aimed at creating products that “seamlessly, unobtrusively integrate with person’s life and daily habits.”

White board doing "dichotomy mapping"

Indeed, we need tools and processes for recognizing biases and exclusion, redefining success metrics, and forecasting unintended consequences, among other things. But it’s not solely the tech giants who are responsible for this evolved future.

The truth is that everyone has a role to play. Consumers, consumer rights advocates, journalists, policy makers. And designers and technologists are uniquely positioned to make impact because we’re on the inside of the making. We’re the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Our personal knowledge, values, and awareness (or lack thereof) are baked into every user-journey, every push notification, and every glowing icon we create. As Kat Zhou pointed out, this means that we have the privilege — and the burden — of wielding more power to influence humanity than ever before.

Our knowledge, our awareness and our values are baked into every user-journey every push notification and every glowing icon we create. This means that we have the privilege — and the burden — of wielding more power to influence than ever before.

So what are we going to do with this responsibility? First of all, we need to focus on becoming more comprehensively informed. We must remain students. Students of humans. Students of our field. And students of understanding the systems of power at play. We tend to prioritize knowing design history, typography, mood boards, hex colors, navigation patterns and responsive grids. But we equally need to know world history, ethics, neuroscience, inclusion, cognitive bias, and systemic inequality. Sound ambitious? Yes.

Seriously, though. Think about this: Architects need degrees and licenses, and they follow strict building codes. They have a contract with the public that says “we will look after your welfare”. Web and digital product design is notoriously DIY. The wild west. No requirements. No regulations. No rules. Only “best practices”. And in the tech world, dropping out of school is a badge of honor. In April of 2019, Paypal founder, Peter Thiel’s foundation advertised on their website that they'd give you a $100,000 to drop out.

But guess what… It turns out, learning from the past is actually really important. Seeing many different perspectives is actually really important. Being able to think critically, drawing from a range of knowledge to draw from is actually really important.

Hindsight is 2020

All of these issues are complex, nuanced, and interconnected. And none of them are going to be solved in a two-week sprint or a slick Keynote presentation. And much as a quick fix sounds nice, the reality is that each of these issues and challenges are moving targets and no one person or group has an easy solution or the singular answer.

Here’s the cool thing about design though: We paint pictures. Meaning — literally — our job is to imagine — visualize — how things could be in the future. And our abilities to navigate uncertainty and reframe problems are some of our greatest strengths.

As we look forward, we must not forget the power of looking backwards as well. Think back about a century ago when industrialization led to social restructuring and low cost production. The design world saw industrial manufacturing as the beginning of the end. But the Bauhaus turned the problem into an opportunity, producing incredible new things with glass, steel, and concrete.

Images of modern architecture and design.

I would argue that our raw materials today are data, awareness, and hindsight. It is our time to leverage these resources to change the future. Nearly twenty years in this industry has trained me to have an open mind when it comes to the plausibility of change. At this point, my imagination for how things (and people) can transform has no end.

We need to commit to an intention to truly grasp the consequences of our design decisions. In order to achieve this aspiration, I believe we must all:

  1. Seek an understanding of the historical, cultural and economic context for our work
  2. Elevate our technology and design curriculums with foundations in humanities, ethics, and neuroscience
  3. Build diverse teams and use inclusive working methods to enable better collective decision making
  4. Empower individuals in our organizations with the responsibility of leading this charge

Believe me — I know you can feel it — the tectonics are rattling. Let’s not squander this opportunity. To learn and evolve. To reimagine our industry and put the human back in the center.

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