Unintended design consequences. Examining the long-term impact of a… | by Ida Persson | Feb, 2024


As designers, entrepreneurs, and creators of products, companies, and things, our work is about solving specific problems, and bringing new solutions to the market. We identify items or processes that aren’t working, and we find ways to solve them.

It’s a beautiful practice — using creativity to solve problems and help people.

This is why I got into the field in the first place, and why am I still here. However, even though creativity is a tool for improving conditions, often, as we embark on the creative journey for improvement, we’re often caught between tight deadlines and business objectives. That, combined with a society focused on overnight successes and quick fixes, often leads to shortcuts and compromises getting in the way of doing meaningful work.

In a previous post, I wrote about how good design is invisible. But so is design that harms. And in a world where lean startups and rapid prototyping are the norm for innovative ventures, how do we make sure that our solutions don’t have unintended negative long-term consequences for the people we’re trying to help, or end up harming people who are not listed as our “stakeholders”?

How do we move fast without breaking things?

What do I mean by this? Let’s take a look at an example.

Toms shoes is a company in the business of improving lives through the shoes that they sell. Over the past decade or so, they’ve gained recognition and influence as one of the leading nonprofits in the U.S. and world-wide. Toms Shoes pioneered the One-for-One donation model. For every shoe someone buys, the company donates one pair of shoes to someone in need. The model is simple and attractive. As consumers, we get a nice pair of shoes, and we also get to feel good about our purchase. It’s a great example of the benefits of turning your donors into heroes.

However, while their goal and mission are noble, years later, Toms’ One-for-One model has created long-term problems in the communities they’re trying to help. As Toms shoes started donating one pair of shoes for every pair sold, local shoe makers started to disappear. The free shoes were putting local shoemakers out of business. Because who can compete with free?

The One-for-One business model looks good on the surface — and from a marketing and “big idea” perspective — One-for-One is a great tool for building your brand reputation and attracting loyal customers. It’s simple to understand — people can both see and understand how their purchase will help someone in need. But the unintended consequences of the model are lost jobs and closed businesses in local communities.

The work might help bring free shoes to a few people, but at the same time, the long-term impact — the unintended consequences — is a ruined economic landscape.

Another example of unintended design consequences can be found right in the palm of our hand: our cellphones. The benefits of our connected world are many. We can easily communicate with friends and family, access free educational resources, and offer remote assistance to those in need. But years into staring into our devices, we have started to see the negative impact of a world that is always connected: we’re becoming increasingly distracted and detached. Many of us have watched the popular netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. There, we learn about the long term effects of cellphone addictions and unwanted feelings of isolation and loneliness. Center for Human Technologies, who created the documentary, does a great job at highlighting the issues and providing better solutions for how we can avoid some of the pit-falls we’ve seen so far.

While some big companies are trying to course-correct the negative impacts of their products (decades later) by launching new tools like Screen time and wellbeing tools, they are still reactive instead of proactive. They’re trying to fix unintended consequences rather than making sure they don’t happen in the first place.

While movements like human-centered design and mindful design have gained traction in developing features and methodologies that help people live better lives, we must take a step back, and explore all the sides of our big ideas from the very beginning.

I believe that, as designers, we’re responsible for the intended and unintended consequences of our work. Or like Kate Holmes says in the book Mismatch — How inclusion Shapes design, “making intentional choices, over risking an unintentional harm.” As designers, we should consider not just client and business needs, but also the potential social and environmental harm of the decisions we make.

So the question becomes, how might we move fast without breaking things?

One way we can do that is by exploring Responsible Innovation. Responsible innovation is a practice that encourages us to move away from the pursuit of overnight successes as a way to mitigate harm. It’s a way to move fast without breaking things, and to make sure that our work has a long term positive impact — WITHOUT causing harm. Responsible innovation considers the role that new products, designs, and innovations will have on society as a whole, and as we look to create new things that can solve old problems, we must consider everyone involved in the process and production of the products and services we bring to market. It’s hard work with no shortcuts. But in the end, we can solve problems, and bringing new solutions to the market in a beautiful AND responsible way.

A few tools to get started:

The problem with problems | Equity Meets Design (course)

Designing for Equity Starter Guide (guide)

Creative Equity Toolkit (toolkit)


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