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Innovate with purpose – understand the consequences of design choices

(Image credit: Image Credit: TeroVesalainen / Pixabay)

When was the last time someone on your team asked, ‘what are the unintended consequences of creating this idea?’ or ‘who else may be directly or indirectly affected by these product decisions?’ These questions are generally not considered or often hidden away as briefs focus on innovating, disrupting and creating the next big thing. 

In a world where the next innovation is right around the corner, product teams are increasingly under pressure to speed up, make decisions faster and release new iterations. In the retail space alone, there are 30,000 new products introduced into the market every year. This product-centric approach can be detrimental, as teams leave themselves with little time to consider the potentially negative effects their design choices can have on society. 

The current approach to innovation involves thinking about everything in terms of models – and the models created almost always fall short of the bigger picture. Products and services respond to current events and patterns, addressing the situation at a certain point in time, instead of looking at the root causes, the subsequent evolution and the predicted future. We might be looking at something up close, but what happens when you zoom out? 

Take for example Olympic stadiums, erected by Greece to host the international sporting event. Now 15 years on they lie empty, completely unused and decaying – all due to poor design choices and no consideration for future costs for society or the environment. As designers and creators of new products and services, teams need to be conscious of the decisions they make and be aware of the wider ecosystems their products fit within. 

Here are three steps that designers and product teams should follow to guide meaningful and impactful design choices:

Understand the scale of the problem

Product teams often design from a user-centric approach, which is ideal for a group of end-users but may end up doing more harm on a society and environmental level than good when scaled up. If we look at Greece’s Olympic stadiums again, the planning stages were mindful of the experience of the participants and the spectators while focusing on increasing tourism and revenue. In the short term, building the venues created jobs for locals and the venues were beautiful for the world to see. However, they also led to the displacement of hundreds of people, and the depletion of many natural resources in the area – consequences that weren’t planned for and lead to negative effects on the surrounding communities for a long time to come.  

The first step for product teams to understand the scale of the problem is to prompt critical thinking  at every step of the process. These critical prompts or speculative scenarios will enable them to anticipate the future impact of any design decision they make. Every step of the process, from initial conception of the product idea, to how the design process is conducted and how product features are selected and developed, needs to reflect act to address potential future risks. It is important to involve and co-design with non-technical people in this process as well as people who may be directly impacted. This will enable organisations to better understand the consequences of their choices at every stage of the development journey. 

Map the idea and get feedback  

By gathering qualitative and quantitative data, designers can translate those findings into visual systems to get a full picture of the intended and unintended consequences and make informed choices. During this process, it is imperative for design teams to use ‘human language’ and to keep their biases and privilege in check. It is also important to have a cognitively diverse team as possible, being inclusive and transparent throughout. 

Visualising feedback will also enable product teams to think about a problem from all angles, allowing them to question any existing statutory requirements and pre-requisitions.  In fact, sometimes testing and feedback can also result in product teams unearthing new areas for innovation which drive future products. 

Reflect and act 

Once the team understands the wider ecosystem through collecting feedback, they can identify the gaps in their product idea and ways to reduce potential risk and make a positive and systemic impact. However, incorporating feedback can sometimes be the hardest challenge. It requires companies to take a step back to look at their existing design and then mould it to incorporate responses from a variety of stakeholders. It also requires the team measure the impact and adapt after the product is out in the world.

By working together on various iterations, while ensuring a constant loop of user feedback, product teams can mould an adaptive and resilient product or service – addressing the needs of the users, thinking about the long-term societal and environmental impact as well as meeting the business outcomes they set out to achieve.  

As companies increasingly lean towards adopting the Silicon Valley mindset of ‘move fast and break things’, it is imperative for them to take a step back, slow down and understand the ethical impact of their decisions. This involves moving from a product-centric approach to an ecosystem approach, zooming out to understand the issue at hand, involving a variety of people to get wide-ranging feedback and reflecting at every step of the innovation journey.

Aly Blenkin, Associate Director and co-founder, Pivotal Act