Are we designers or propagandists if we use insights to manipulate people? 🤔💭

Creepy products don’t give people dignity.

I remember sitting in a room with engineerings a large tech company talking about what we could and couldn’t do with the data we had on people.

The team was merely throwing around ideas, like how we could technically know when two users were together at a coffee shop near a store — then send them a 2 for 1 deal or a friend’s deals.

It was clear this was creepy, people didn’t sign up for this kind of interaction, and we were not going to pursue these kinds of ideas.

But, we could have.

And some teams do creepy work.

And some creepy work is informed by very human center design concepts.

People have worth.

People have worth, that’s one of my core worldviews. It’s evident to me, but not all share this worldview. How we build companies and design solutions can bring people dignity and value — or it can just generate profit.

dignity is to design
what justice is to law
and health is to medicine.
– Jay Cary, Design Conference, Bend OR

Are we design thinkers or propagandists? 🤔💭

Using empathy as a tool to make better products doesn’t automatically add up to giving people dignity.

But “Design Thinking” starts with empathy…

The framework known as “Design Thinking” is widespread. It’s used to find problems and solve them. It’s one of many human center design concepts.

The idea is to start with empathy, work to understand people and their environment, then test solutions based on your understanding. (Wait, what’s design thinking?)

When we talk about such high brow concepts like “design thinking” we should consider that we may be instead working on the “design of thinking.

I’ll try not to break our brains with nuance. It is the internet after all, and when you try to have a nuanced conversation it’s easy for people to overreact…


🦊 🤞 Understanding People Is Not Nice.

It sounds nice to talk about having an understanding of people, having empathy for where they are and their challenges. As “design thinking” starts with empathy we can trick ourselves to think it’s a process that respects people.

We need to be careful we (the founders, makers, builders, designers) don’t become experimenters, were other people are the experimentees we do tests on — animal customers.

Animal customers we learn about — just to build better traps.

I’m not looking to claim some moral high ground here. I’m not saying we shouldn’t change peoples behavior or that we shouldn’t understand people so we can sell things.

I’m looking to reflect on what we are doing — to be more honest about the work we do.

It’s not great for anyone if the propagandist doesn’t know they make propaganda.

Here is some contrast to help us see the difference between “design thinking” and the “design of thinking.”

Design Thinking vs. Design of Thinking

  • Empathy to understand behavior vs. empathy to change behavior.
  • Talking about user problems vs. talking about users as a problem.
  • Measuring useable vs. measuring usage.
  • People vs. consumers.
  • Knowing people to build their strengths vs. exploit their weaknesses
  • Speak to people in their language to convey ideas vs. trick them
  • Using insight to make solution vs. building traps.
  • Considering users worldview vs. exploiting core peoples beliefs.
  • Design vs. propaganda.

In an age where robots and automation are on the rise, the people that make the next wave of technology-enabled products should be careful to leverage human behavior solely to addict people to products.

You can only trick people for so long.

The power to build digital products at scale, demands we consider how we move people to action. 📈

Using a human-centered process, in and of its self, doesn’t acknowledge peoples dignity. It matters what you do with the insights you gain about people.

We are moving deeper into a world where propaganda, content, and social media are blurred into one. I’d ask those of you that are leading consumer technology advances (especially at scale) to at least consider how you move people to action.

Thanks for reading hope this got you thinking 💭
I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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There is still a chance for humans to have a place in the future — robots are still a work in progress 🙂