Design Impact, Ethics, and Diversity

5 minutes, 3 links

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Design Impact, Ethics, and Diversity

Problems Worth Solving

As you’re considering companies and opportunities, it’s helpful to also to step back and think about the type of impact you may want to create and the legacy to leave behind. Are you more comfortable working on a deep problem that impacts few but has the power to change their experience significantly? Or would you prefer to cover a smaller problem that affects millions? There isn’t a right or wrong answer here, and just like the question of different cultures—some of these problems may resonate closer with you than others.

When we make decisions, we’re usually well aware of our present surroundings and our current situation. While usually it’s good to be present in the moment, sometimes it may deter us from taking on an opportunity that might seem risky in the near-term. One way to get over this risk is to reflect on this experience as if you’re looking back at it. Jeff Bezos calls it the regret minimization framework—if you were to look back in your life as if you’re 80 years old, how would this experience feel? Sometimes this additional perspective can help us see things in focus when viewed from a broader lens.

But First, Do No Harm

The world of design is changing. Another way to look at one’s impact is through the lens of ethics. Are there certain industries that you wouldn’t want to work for or projects that would go against your ethics because you think the impact would be a negative for society? If this was your last role—what would you have liked to accomplish there?

Some of these questions may seem “fluffy.” It’s easy to dismiss them as impractical and idealistic, especially when you’ve been laid off and you’re trying to make ends meet. But the reality is that not all tech companies create impact that’s positive for the world. Even for the companies that try to stay neutral or “not evil,” the reality is far more nuanced. While discussing ethics in design is nothing new, too often these discussions fall by the wayside in practice. The people who bring up ethics in industry are sometimes termed contrarians, but eventually companies come around. In 2020, Twitter started flagging incendiary posts and allows users to filter replies to their posts.

Diversity

Although design as a field is a discipline that’s accessible to all, the reality of current hiring practices makes this a privileged profession. It takes skill, yes, plus a healthy dose of luck and a way of “looking the part” to get past the gate. Companies can often avoid negative impact by having a representative employee base. Unfortunately, design, like tech, has not caught up with diversity and inclusion best practices. What starts out as innocuously screening candidates for “cultural fit” ends up as a homogeneous workplace where everyone looks and acts the same. This can quickly lead to bad decisions if employees don’t recognize or empathize with customers who are very different from them.

So choose carefully. When ranking the companies you want to work for, consider:

  • What is the company’s mission, and are its actions in line with what they do?

  • How has this company benefited humanity, or has it made things worse off?

  • How actively does this company engage in its community? What type of work does it do?

  • How does this company treat diversity and inclusion? Is it an afterthought?

  • Do they have a diverse board of directors? What does the management team look like?

These days it’s hard not to find news of yet another well-known large tech company coming under fire for their lax diversity standards.

Additional Resources

Clayton Christensen is well known for his theory of jobs to be done, and one of his seminal books on the topic is The Innovator’s Dilemma. But did you know that he also wrote the book, How Will You Measure Your Life? In this book, Clayton admonishes readers to think about their guiding principles when making decisions so that they stay true to themselves and not end up in jail.

More on Jeff Bezos’ framework in the 2010 Princeton graduating class address.

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