From Pixels to Purpose

Ethics, equity and responsibility

Being confronted with significant challenges in the world that surrounds us, we took the occasion of World Interaction Design Day 2023 and gathered as the PHOENIX Digital Community to reflect and delve into the crucial aspects of our profession. We are a broad community of researchers, user experience designers, user interface designers, strategists and technologists who meet from time to time to discuss emerging topics. In this article, we explore the outcomes of our discussion, challenging the status quo and questioning our role as designers, our responsibility, and the ethics that guide our decisions.

Perspective of design

At the heart of our daily business, we realise that designed (digital) experiences increasingly shape our lives. Many of the products we design today are interwoven artefacts that make business models accessible to end-consumers as seamless and joyful as possible. That applies to shower heads as well as to connected services or apps. We build things that people love and hopefully integrate into their everyday lives to ultimately create revenue for our clients.

Keeping this in mind, our responsibilities have taken on profound significance. Design is the key discipline that shapes the relationship between products and people and with the whole ecosystem involved (the industry, the company, the channels, and the people). Our responsibility as designers is to define in which way, we are revealing the deeper purpose of what we create, where the first layer is the joyful experience for the user.

Responsibility of design

At the heart of our discussion was the realisation that our responsibility extends beyond just the beautiful product, beyond pixel-perfect layouts and pleasing colour palettes. Our role changes from the pure execution of already made decisions towards being the moderators of taking these decisions – especially in early innovation projects. We are, first and foremost, question-askers. Our role demands that we dig deep, probing not just the "what" but the "why" and "how." In a fast-paced design agency, it may be easy to rush into projects without considering the bigger picture. But, as responsible designers, we must pause and ponder: Are we genuinely enthusiastic about the topics we dive into? Do we have enough insights derived from our observations and emerging trends that give us the confidence to foster the right decisions?  

This might sound presumptuous but the attitude in our discussion revealed that we designers are willing to take a position that comes with more ownership in the projects we are working on. A type of ownership that balances the desire of our clients to sell their product and be successful (viability, desirability, feasibility) with the aspiration to create products that are sustainable in many ways and that fit the needs of future users. From our perspective, a successful product combines the success of the business with a positive impact on a social and ecological level. At least questioning the status quo and having arguments from research that will be aligned with the business perspective is our responsibility as moderators for innovation.

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Ethics as our north star  

Another key takeaway from our meeting was that ethics is not just a buzzword; it's the north star that should guide our every design decision. During the discussion, we also wondered about the importance of implementing it in our daily work. But how? We couldn’t escape the elephant in the room. The projects we often find ourselves working on are products that bring joy and wellbeing to their users. Don't get us wrong; these are important. But it's high time we ask ourselves: Can we afford to be this comfortable? Are we leveraging our skills to address the pressing problems of our world? In an age of climate crises, social inequalities, and global health challenges, are the products that we create really where our design prowess should be concentrated? And if so, what is the bigger benefit it brings to the already existing solutions?

How it applies

Our responsibility extends beyond merely discussing ethics; it involves applying these ethical principles to our day-to-day business. As thoughtful individuals and proactive achievers, we willingly embrace this challenge. So, what ground rules do we want to respect when discussing ethics and responsibility? We include diverse perspectives to bring unparalleled innovation, scan the context we are designing in, and meticulously moderate the processes to commit to a solution that is not mere aesthetics. Beauty, for us, is the outcome of something that functions flawlessly, embodying all the values we stand for. We consistently seek meaning and strive to get better. Ultimately, a product or service achieves success when we align these ethical considerations with our business goals, collaboratively creating lasting solutions.

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