Image courtesy of PexelsAs product designers, we play an important role in shaping our future. The products we create have the power to transform how societies think, feel and behave. For this reason, we must be conscious of the social and ethical responsibility that we have towards our users.

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We as designers are in a position to proactively drive positive change within our communities.

In this article, I will discuss three emerging themes raised at The Design Matters ’19 conference that we should be considering when it comes to designing new products and experiences today:

Minimal tech. As screens take up more of our time and attention, we need to be aware of how our products impact our users’ productivity levels. How might we create non-intrusive products that help users to focus and spend less time on their devices?Design + Activism. Design can be used as a powerful tool to break taboos, empower minority groups and raise awareness of difficult topics in society. Have you questioned whether your products are inclusive and representative of the diversity of your user base?Open design. New tools are changing the way we work as designers and we must consider how we can involve our communities to design better products together. How might we facilitate greater collaboration in our design processes and help shape the future of our practice and our role?
Minimal Tech: Create less noise

In an age where screen addiction is a reality, digital products have become more competitive in trying to steal and maintain our time and attention. As designers, we need to start thinking about clearing the clutter and reducing the noise and stress that comes with pop up notifications and time-consuming functions.

In order to avoid a tech burnout, we need to create less intrusive and more functional, joyful products that help us thrive as human beings, feel better and be more productive.



Jeannie Huang on the Deliberate Practice of Boredom (Design Matters, 2019)

Jeannie Huang’s talk on The Deliberate Practice of Boredom highlights the need to build boredom into your products. Boredom is necessary for our creative work as it allows us to stop and process things, work in a single flow without distractions and help create tech that is better for others.

Think about the digital products you use today and how they have been designed to distract you from the task at hand. How often do you spend your time mindlessly scrolling through social media, checking your inboxes, push notifications, the number of likes on your post etc?

The war for your attention is a zero sum game.

We as designers need to challenge the addictive design patterns that are built into products today. The infinite scroll, pull to refresh, and Facebook’s like button are all intended to trigger a dopamine effect to form product habits and keep you coming back.

Some ways in which we can create better products for our users is to incorporate design patterns such as Instagram’s ‘You’re all caught up’ message. This is in fact a meaningful gesture from Instagram that recognises your time is valuable and suggests that you should probably stop mindlessly scrolling. Additionally, removing the number of likes appearing on your post allows users to focus less on seeking validation from vanity metrics to boost their self worth.



The “You’re all caught up” message from Instagram

Some key takeaways from Jeannie’s talk are to:

Avoid volume metrics. Metrics such as ‘X people are using Feature Y in 3 months’ are not necessarily valuable nor ethical to the user. Can you really reliably trust data if they are tied to success or commission targets?Always look at retention as a measure of success. Retention rates are an honest metric that proves to you whether your product is valuable enough for people to want to come back to.Find value and empathy in wait-times. Technology tries to remove wait times, but wait times allows us to value other people’s time and empathy for others. Waiting reminds us that we are working for society’s time and not just ours.

Boredom trains us to talk about design solutions in terms of the product, not just the experience. Designers have a great social responsibility when it comes to designing products, so we need to be asking ourselves:

What do we value and how do we build that into our practice?

To hear more from Jeannie’s talk, you can watch the video below:

Design + Activism: Be more inclusive

As we progress into a more fluid society where borders in race and gender are no longer defined, design becomes more powerful in creating awareness of social injustice issues and providing subcultures with a voice. With the rise of new technologies, we need to challenge pre-existing norms and question whether we are designing for a more inclusive future.

We are moving away from a user-centric to society-centric design approach where we need to consider creating products that empower people, break taboos and make a political stance.


Left to right: Sam Horner (Design Matters Host), Andrew Schmidt (Slack), Emil & Jacob (creators of Meet Q) from Design Matters 19

Emil Asmussen & Jacob Ziegler’s talk on Meet Q, The First Genderless Voice is a classic example of technology striving to challenge binary gender boundaries and adapt to a future where we are no longer defined by past conventions. They created Q, the world’s first genderless voice for AI as they recognised that binary choice is not an accurate representation of the gender complexities in today’s world.

Have you ever noticed that your digital voice assistants — Alexa, Siri, Cortona and Google are all female voices?

Is it easier to give orders to a female voice than it is to a male voice? Perhaps this goes back to the stereotype of women in secretarial roles as the job was typically fulfilled by females. As designers, we need to question whether we should be allowing these old school gender norms to be translated into technology and the products we create.

As society and its people become more accepting of gender neutrality, technology should be progressively adapting to these changes. For instance, adding a third gender option to a voice assistant makes technology more inclusive of those who identify as gender neutral.

There are only two gender options for your voice assistant in your settings (Design Matters 19)

Inclusive thinking is crucial to the longevity of your product, and so we must broaden our awareness of the social structures that impact our users’ lives. Meet Q highlights the need to conduct research into racial and gender politics by ensuring early stakeholder input and different perspectives are met to avoid pitfalls in your design. They showcased the process of building a genderless voice from scratch — involving all ranges of genderless people, partnering with equal opportunity organisations like Copenhagen Pride, Tech Ambassador of Denmark and EQUAL AI.

As designers, we must ensure technology recognises us all.

Some key takeaways from Emil & Jacob are that:

Innovation should progress with humanity, not technology. Design for humans — this means not only recognising visible differences such as language but also non-visible traits, like gender, sexuality or religion.Make designs less biased and more inclusive. Visual elements and characteristics such as colour, layout and language should strive to be more inclusive and less stereotypical. Avoid using colours that reinforce old-school connotations of being ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.Diversity of mindset. There are no maps — counter your biases by involving other experts and stakeholders in the process and conversation. In order for things to change, we must question our fundamental values and beliefs.

To hear more from Emil & Jacob’s talk, you can watch the video below:

Open design: collaboration is key

Our role as designers is starting to shift away from a centralised model to a decentralised paradigm where more and more people want to be involved in the design process. A new generation of design tools is changing the way we work, taking teamwork to a whole new dimension.

As the future of our practice and role changes, we should be thinking about the ways in which we can be more collaborative in our design process— of who can be allowed to design and how we choose to interact with the wider community.

Suddenly everybody is working on the same canvas, and it’s no longer “your design”. We need to figure out how to balance fast collaboration with a deep creative focus.

Open Design by Jenny Wen (Design Matters, 2019)

Jenny Wen’s talk on Open Design explores the concept of how designers should be empowering teams and communities to understand the design process and enabling them to use design tools in order to do their jobs better. This means that we should be breaking down the barriers of who gets to be a designer, by involving our stakeholders throughout the design process and giving them the freedom to design together in order for them to feel valued and heard.

We need unique perspectives to meet the unique needs of millions of people.

Design needs to be redefined as a collaborative approach rather than an independent activity, where anyone can inspect, modify and enhance the design in order to receive continuous critique and feedback. By sharing our files, we are giving the wider team asynchronous access, context and shared understanding.

Today, the designer is no longer in the centre of the circle.

The concept of open design explores the notion of opening up our processes to be more inclusive with who we work with, and how we can work with the community at large. For instance, could we open up our designs to the public and enable the greater community to contribute to designs in the same way that Github has done with open source code?

Design should be a universal language for people building products. We should hope that more people understand design and its value. As designers, we should be the one opening that door for people.

We need to design communities so that people can work together in new ways. It’s not about sharing your work, it’s about creating a world where more and more people can be involved. Only then will we be able to meet the needs of the millions of people we serve.

Some key takeaways from Jenny are that:

Anyone can be a designer. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a background in design. Involving different people such as engineers, product managers and customers in the process allows you to see things from multiple perspectives, thereby making your designs more inclusive and less biased.Build trust between collaborators. By getting stakeholders involved throughout the process, we can enable them to see things from our perspective and understand the value of what design can bring to the table.Empower others through design. We need to be less precious with our designs and comfortable with opening up our processes and tools to enable stakeholders to provide input. We should be teaching them to the tools and resources necessary to ensure they can do their jobs effectively.

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To hear more from Jenny’s talk, you can watch the video below:

About Design Matters

Thank you to Design Matters for hosting an incredible conference, jam packed with inspirational speakers, engaging workshops and providing fun-filled events! It was a delightful experience overall. For more talks on the future of design from the Design Matters conference, refer to this youtube playlist.

I would highly recommend this conference to anyone seeking to learn about new movements in digital design. You’ll have the chance to meet leaders from top design companies and startups as well as the opportunity to connect with other like-minded designers from around the world!