Teaching student tech designers to treat users more humanely

Here are a few college classes intended to help future tech designers keep the well-being of users in mind:

The class, which she taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and the MIT Media Lab, attempted to teach a sense of responsibility to technology inventors through science fiction, a genre in which writers have been thinking deeply about the impact of today’s technologies for decades. “It encourages people to have that long-term version that I think is missing in the world of innovation right now,” she says, “What happens when your idea scales to millions of people? What happens when people are using your product hundreds of times a day? I think the people who are developing new technologies need to be thinking about that.”

Students in Brueckner’s class built functional prototypes of technologies depicted by science fiction texts. One group created a “sensory fiction” book and wearable gadget that, in addition to adding lights and sounds to a story, constricts the body through air pressure bags, changing temperature and vibrating “to influence the heart” depending on how the narrative’s protagonist feels. Another group was inspired by a dating technology in Dave Eggers’s The Circle that uses information scraped from the Internet about a date to give suggestions about how to impress him or her. They created an interactive website about a friend using his public information to see how he would react to the idea. A third group imagined how a material that could transition from liquid to solid on command like the killing material “ice-nine” from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle could be used as a prototyping tool…

Neema Moraveji, the founding director of Standford’s Calming Technology Lab and a cofounder of breath-tracking company Spire, has a different approach for teaching students to consider the human impact of what they are designing. His classes teach students to create technology that actively promotes a calm or focused state of mind, and he co-authored a paper that laid out several suggestions for technology designers, including:

  • Letting users control or temporarily disable interruptions, the way that TweetDeck allows users to control from whom to receive notifications on Twitter.
  • Avoiding overload through the number of features available and the way information is presented. For instance, a Twitter app that opens to the least-recent tweet, “gives users the sense that they must read through all the tweets before they are done.”
  • Using a human tone or humor
  • Providing positive feedback such as “Thanks for filling out the form” and “You successfully updated the application” in addition to error alerts
  • Including easy ways to interact socially, such as Likes and Retweets, which allow people to interact without worrying about how they appear to others.
  • Avoiding time pressure when not necessary.
  • Incorporating natural elements like “soothing error tones, naturalistic animations, and desktop wallpapers taken from the natural world.”

These sound like interesting ideas that may just help designers think not just about the end goals of a product but also consider the user experience. Yet, I still wonder about the ability of tech designers to resist the pressure their employers might put on them. For example, putting these more humane options into practice could be easier when working for your own startup but would be more difficult if a big corporation is breathing down your neck to push the bottom line or end product. Think the Milgram experiment: can individual designers follow the ethical path? Perhaps some of this training also needs to happen at the executive and managerial levels so that the emphasis on protecting the user is pervasive throughout organizations.

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