For over 150 years, writers and philosophers have used dystopia as a tool to examine and question our social and political structures. Today, speculative fiction is alive and well–as a multi-billion-dollar entertainment genre and also as a teaching tool in design classrooms to spark important conversations. Yet, speculative fiction hardly gets mentioned, let alone used, on product teams in the workplace. Why is that, when digital products have reshaped social structures and sprouted entirely new sub-cultures? What if designers used dystopic thought experiments as a tool to create better product experiences? What if our product teams imagined the futures we don’t want to create to actively start designing against them?
This question is particularly important when designing data-driven products in the United States, where there is little to no federal oversight. As of today, there is no single, comprehensive federal law on protecting consumer’s digital privacy. The last law passed in the US was the Privacy Law of 1974. Since then, data privacy regulation has been proposed by senators across bipartisan lines but has not caught serious traction in Congress. Abroad, the EU passed the General Data Protection Regulation in 2018, Japan passed the Act on Protection of Personal Information in 2017, and South Korea passed the Personal Information Protection Act in 2011. While there has been some progress made, overall, we’re nowhere close to comprehensive data protection.
In the absence of strict governmental regulation, companies are collecting, mining and/or selling data at full speed, having spent $19 billion to collect and analyze user data in 2018. Much of this collection and analysis is not explicitly consensual between companies and users. To give a recent example, research firm LexisNexis has started creating “risk scores” assessing an individual’s risk of opioid addiction or overdose by piecing together data from insurance claims, digital health records, housing records, and information about a patient’s friends, family and roommates. This information is then sold to insurers without a patient ever knowing or consenting. In a perfect world, this could help doctors be more cautious and sensitive when prescribing powerful opiates. But in reality, we also must imagine what could go wrong.
This is exactly the question designers and product teams need to be asking more often. While there is nothing wrong with using data to create better product experiences, we must be more thoughtful about potential negative consequences of the digital products we create, especially as these products start to understand users more intimately. Given a lax regulatory environment, a thoughtful approach to digital experiences can be a competitive advantage. For example, Apple has leaned into its stance on stricter data privacy, hoping to feel like a safe pair of hands in comparison to other tech giants.
By definition, design is a series of intentional decisions made to achieve a desired outcome. How thoughtfully are we approaching our desired outcomes? Too often, product teams focus on reaching an ideal outcome for the business (i.e. how do we get as many users as possible to use this product?). While business people are trained in scenario analysis for financial forecasting (creating worst / likely / best case scenarios), this process hasn’t been regularly introduced into the design process when considering how people might use (or misuse) the products being introduced into the world.
Creating new businesses and new product experiences is inherently imaginative and we often do a lot of writing in this process. We can take inspiration from science fiction writers and apply their ethos to the tools we often use in our design process, both when we’re considering what our brand stands for and when we’re thinking through how users might use our products. When we think about creating a better digital experience, we must consider both our own company’s decisions as well as potential misuse by users of our products.
In the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin explains that science fiction writers are misunderstood because people assume they are trying to predict the demise of society. She explains that as a writer, she is here “not to predict the future… but to describe reality, the present world. Science fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive.” That’s what makes good science fiction, good – it is eerily representative of current society. It shows us, from a bird’s eye view, what is currently happening. Product teams are also similarly surveying the current situation. One framework we often use at frog is the 4 C’s, which stand for Company, Category, Customer, and Culture. This helps us map out current realities that we can then use as a foundation for our dystopic thought experiments.
In particular, the problem of data use (or misuse) is not just up to the cyber-security experts or engineers to figure out from a technical level. It starts at understanding people and the worlds we currently live in, while applying some imagination to how that world might change given the emergence of new technologies and tools.
A company’s values are embodied by its brand. An exercise we often use when thinking about brand is “Hero vs. Villain.” Every good brand stands for something–it is a “hero” working against a “villain.” In this exercise we ask, what is your brand fighting against? For example, Nike is fighting against the idea of lethargy. “Just do it” is urgent and fights against standing still. If we were to use this exercise with a dystopic twist, we could ask, “What if our company were the villain?” Imagine you work for a wearables company and your mission is to help users prevent chronic illness. What would make your company the villain? Would it be preventing users from receiving health insurance if they were to get sick? These scenarios help your team outline the values required to ensure that this villainous situation doesn’t happen. If your company or team does a regular team off-site, consider doing this exercise together during that time. If not, this brainstorm could be held during lunch.
Category refers to the industry you’re working in, more broadly. When we think about a category, we often start with sketching out a value map, which illustrates how your company fits into a broader ecosystem—it shows who the players your company is interacting with, at a glance. Lines connecting your company to different players are labeled with what’s being exchanged (i.e. money, data, governance). For example, in Facebook’s value map, players might include advertisers, Facebook users, data brokers and governments. What type of value is being exchanged at every interaction? Who are the most valuable players in this map and how much power does each player have? What if power dynamics switched? Does one type of exchange between two players hurt other players? What do your competitor’s value maps look like and are they treating your most valuable players better?
Refreshing your value map on a quarterly basis is good practice. It helps you reassess your business model and keep focused on the people who are most important.
Some companies, like Lowe’s Innovation Labs, embrace speculative fiction wholeheartedly by hiring science fiction writers to imagine possible futures. Kyle Nel who previously led the lab equipped the writers with market research and asked them to write real stories with characters and conflict and resolution. It’s the conflict and the potential resolution that more product teams have room to embrace.
It’s my hope that by introducing these thought experiments in the workplace and infusing them into tools designers are already comfortable with that we can spark divergent thinking and create better digital experiences, protect user’s privacy, and avoid dystopic outcomes. Ultimately, the products we create are the most significant vehicles for the company’s brand. Designers are both keepers of the brand and defenders of the user, and by adding dystopic thought experiments to the toolset, we can do this job even better.
Agnes will be speaking further on this topic at her SXSW Panel, “Designing Against a Data Dystopia” on March 9, 2019. Find out more details here.
Agnes is a Senior Strategist at frog San Francisco. Fascinated by human behavior, large ecosystems and inspired by principles within nature, Agnes works with clients to build businesses that foster a respect for the customer, community and the planet.
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