On the X-Axis, you have, from left to right, what we build, at an increasing scale of things, from the pixel to the product to the whole ecosystem in which your product operates. As you move from pixel to ecosystem, constraints, inter-dependencies and complexities grow.
And on the Y-Axis, same idea, but the scale is the audience you’re designing for, starting with one individual human and working your way up to all of society. And as the scale grows, the less we can assume about who we are designing for, their motivations, their culture, their needs and wants.
As designers, we feel really comfortable in that bottom left quadrant: it’s where we can push our pixels and polish our work to make something really well crafted. And it’s where we can be human-centered, focusing on a particular audience of people that we are intentionally designing for, and a set of tasks that we understand is important to them. We feel like we can understand and control things there. You can imagine this as the space of designing a book cover; while you need to make it legible and convey the nature of what the book contains, but it’s a relatively finite design space to operate in.
But at the extreme end of the X-axis, we may face unanticipated consequences from network effects. The systems we’re designing are sometimes difficult to model and sometimes we only really see what happens with them when they’re used at scale. Think of a cleaning product that might work exceptionally well for a particular task, but when released into the water system, might have unintended effects on plant and animal life.
When you go far out on the Y-axis, designing for the whole world, there’s a whole other set of problems that can arise. For instance, you see how differently Facebook works in different parts of the world, from the way people access the internet, and the kinds of devices they have, to their social norms, political contexts, economic conditions. And as the number of people using your product grows, so does the likelihood that people will use it in unintended ways, which can create both good and bad outcomes.
In the digital space, we see this with a product like YouTube being used not only for you and me to capture and share our own personal life moments on video, but also for the Khan Academy to transform ways in which people learn in a highly personalized way through instructional video. Or the ways in which Facebook has been used to organize social change movements like the Women’s March.
These uses, by large numbers of people, are impacting how our society functions.
Of course, there are less positive examples of these effects: election interference, polarization, or concerns about health and well-being; ways technology might inadvertently cause harm when it scales towards the top of that Y-axis.
These quadrants are not a space where design traditionally spends a lot of time. It’s the world of sociology, public health, cultural studies, sustainable design, economics. In a sense, it is a new kind of digital urban planning.
Designing for all four quadrants, thinking expansively about the impact of our inventions on people and society, that is the heart of ethically responsible design. In the digital realm there aren’t a lot of examples of products that do a great job of this…yet. It points to both a challenge and a huge opportunity for all us.
So where can we look for inspiration? We have to look back in history a bit to see what lessons we can learn.