Why Designers Have the Power (and Responsibility) to Improve Society
There’s not one part of our everyday lives that design doesn’t touch, from the products we purchase to the spaces where we work.
With the ability to influence our values and expectations in so many ways, designers (and the companies they work for) have a responsibility to use their skills for good to improve lives, create opportunities, and to bring people together.
More companies are taking this responsibility seriously. We talked with design leaders at Google, Microsoft, Uber, and Dropbox about the importance of empathy, inclusive design, and diversity. Here are their perspectives.
Empathy builds better companies
In business today, one word keeps emerging: empathy.
“Companies have figured out they have to more deeply connect with their customers. That connection only comes through empathy, and designers are natural empaths,” says Michael Gough, vice president of product design at Uber.
As a disruptive brand, Uber knows the only way to avoid being disrupted itself is to continuously deepen its knowledge of customers — who they are, what they need, and how they experience the Uber brand. Michael says the company uses research teams as “empathy engines” to foster emotional connections with customers.
Dropbox, which is focused on empowering people to share and collaborate from anywhere, has tried to incorporate empathy into its design process.
“It’s important to represent our values in our design. People align to that in the same way they choose friends who share their values,” says Collin Whitehead, head of brand studio at Dropbox.
For Microsoft, empathy is part of its multi-platform strategy. Designers zoom out to understand the full user experience across different contexts, designing for the purposes people are trying to achieve.
“It’s all too easy to fixate on pixels rather than the whole user experience,” says Albert Shum, CVP of Microsoft’s Design, Experiences & Devices group. “If we can use empathy to understand how people use devices to live better, that’s how we can create meaningful experiences.”
Those insights often come from face-to-face interactions.
“Empathy doesn’t come from reading a research report — it comes from connecting with people,” Albert says. “That’s why we sometimes invite customers to our studio to meet with the team and give us direct feedback.”
Design for one, extend to many
Inclusive design, which involves making everyday products accessible to as many users as possible, is now a priority for most big businesses. But for designers, inclusion requires a shift in perspective.
Kat Holmes, director of UX design at Google, says design needs to move away from the idea of “a mythical average” of human traits and instead embrace specificity to understand real-world problems and to create life-changing solutions.
“There is a long history of innovations inspired by the needs of very narrow audiences, which ended up benefiting many others,” Kat says. Audiobooks, for example, initially were made for people who are blind or visually impaired. Voice-based interactions originally were created for people with limited use of their hands for keyboard or mouse work.
Inclusive design is more than a force for social good — it’s also a smart business practice. As Kat says,
“Inclusion drives innovation by helping us solve problems for much broader groups of people, which ultimately is an economic benefit. It shouldn’t be an afterthought.”
At Microsoft, Albert and his team are making technology more inclusive. His team is focused on integrating voice, touch, pen and ink, and eye-movement tracking, giving people a range of inputs so they can use technology in the way that works best for them. Microsoft also has made other exciting advances.
“Traditional game controllers require two hands,” he says. “The Xbox team created an adaptive Xbox controller that takes a wide range of inputs, including a one-handed joystick, a foot pedal, a foot motion controller, and switches of all kinds, so people with a wide range of abilities can play.”
The team even applied inclusive design principles to the product packaging, knowing that the adaptive controller wasn’t useful if people couldn’t access it easily. Ultimately, the packaging design was useful for most people.
“The team created a package that doesn’t require two arms to open,” Albert says. “It was immediately popular with customers.”
Diverse views create stronger designs
Inclusive design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Companies need to build more diversity into their teams, in terms of ethnicity, age, gender, and physical ability, and encourage participation from the communities they serve. That means changing traditional views about who qualifies as a designer and what good design looks like.
“Inclusive design creates a more holistic and humane view of people,” Kat says. “It’s a way to identify and partner with excluded communities, to bring them into the design process as contributors.”
“My hope is that my work at Google will bring engineers and designers and product managers together in a shared conversation about who we’re designing with and who we’re designing for. Because the products we create will be used by millions, if not billions, of people.”