Doing the right thing – Conscious design in software development

The thing that makes us essentially human is the ability to think for ourselves, to reason, and to make decisions. Yet this cognitive ability risks being compromised by the growing use – and abuse – of persuasive technology principles and techniques. Designers and technologists are being taught behavioural design techniques so that the solutions and applications they design, and build persuade users to do more of what organisations want them to do.

While behavioural design is not inherently bad, the problem is that not all organisations have good intentions. In the pursuit for your attention, numerous applications are specifically built to lure you in, often on mind-numbing feeds, persuading you to stay connected, with the ultimate purpose of increased revenue.

Many social media applications have this effect, creating an addiction that sees users spending three to four hours on social media daily. That’s neither healthy nor productive; it’s also not sustainable and doesn’t take into consideration the goals and ambitions of the person behind the screen.  Another issue is the ability of applications (and the algorithms within) to use, collect and process your personal data, to sub-consciously skew bias, perception and judgement in a way that shifts the behaviour of the end-user. The sharing of personal and behavioural information with other organisations exacerbates this effect and compromises privacy.

Increasingly, we aspire towards being mentally and physically healthier, making more time for friends, family and giving back to the community.  We want to sleep more, spend less time on social media.  We want more adventures and to spend less time working.  We want to maintain our privacy and independence, free of irrational, sub-conscious influence.  We want to save more and still live a great life.

The premise of ethical, or conscious design is deliberately designing and building solutions that make lives easier; contribute meaningfully to our existence; uphold ethics and privacy, and fulfil the needs of the individual consumer as much as it they do commercial requirements.,

Conscious design

To get the balance right, designers and software developers often need to make trade-offs to ensure that the benefits of solutions are not one-sided and that communities, as well as organisations, flourish.

Take banking. Good designers and developers of mobile banking apps have real empathy with users to simplify their experience – they understand their need for simplicity, speed and security and translate these into solutions that enable you to bank faster, in your own time, anytime, apply for products quickly and safely, and eliminate the need to visit a bank branch. Yet, a designer of an ATM interface could purposely arrange default withdrawal amount options on the screen to favour higher value withdrawals and increase income to the bank, rather than options that meet the needs and financial position of the consumer.

Given the software explosion, how do we make conscious, ethical design non-negotiable?  The South African Companies Act, as well as the King IV Code are specific in how they set out principles for the sustainability of organisations, covering issues such as transparency, accountability, and integrity. The King Code™ contains both principles and recommended practices aimed at achieving sustainable outcomes. These are as applicable to technology and software development as any other industry.

Beyond this, there is scope to create a code or set of principles that applies values and judgements to the practice of software design and development.  Values that the technology industry could benefit from include:

  • Nonmaleficence – “first, do no harm”
  • Autonomy – the user has the right to refuse and/or choose their response
  • Beneficence – designers and developers should balance the interests of the user and the organisation, in the pursuit of doing or producing good
  • Transparency and honesty – informing users of the true purpose of data collection, and obtaining informed consent is part of privacy regulations instituted all around the world.

Seldom is the link drawn between the principles of governance and sustainability in society and the work of those who build the apps and solutions consumers use every day.  Designers and developers of software have a critical role to play. While we take direction from customer needs, organisations should aim to create ethical, human-centred outcomes and experiences designed to solve real problems – freeing up time for users, providing them with the best options, promoting good design principles, and contributing to the greater good in society.

These may seem lofty goals, but more than ever, organisational relevance and longevity depends on sustainable practices that deliver positive outcomes for business, communities, and society at large.  Besides, it’s worth remembering it only takes two people to start a movement in the right direction.

At iOCO, we are passionate about conscious design and development.  Our service design and AppDev teams follow human-centred design practices, taking time to understand the real purpose of the solution that is being sought.  Ethical use of data and algorithms in our solutions is critical.  Before acceptance, projects are screened to ensure alignment between organisational values and those of our client. The integrity of our designers and developers is paramount, which is why we have robust recruitment and performance management processes that ensure we attract and retain the right talent – people who are aware of their responsibilities and who share iOCO’s values of authenticity, partnership, adaptability, ingenuity, and mastery.

Solve with iOCO.

About the author

Mary-Lyn is Cluster Executive of iOCO’s Digital team in Gauteng, where she works with over 400 application developers & designers.