Ask the Expert: Unintended Design Consequences

The 9th UXBristol 2019 contained hands-on UX techniques from leading practitioners and 12 exciting workshops presented in three different spaces. As proud sponsors of the event, we took the opportunity to catch up with some of the workshop runners, those that are experts in their field.

We caught up with Mike Harris, Freelance UX Consultant to gather his career journey so far and to chat with him about ‘the unintended consequences of design’ specifically; the subject of his workshop at this year’s UX Bristol.

ADLIB: In a nutshell, what has been your career journey so far, leading you to where you are right now?

Mike Harris: Simply put, I studied Psychology to understand human behaviour, then applied that to the digital world to understand people’s relationship with technology. I have been working in Bristol for almost a decade and have researched and designed products and services across many sectors. I have come to be intrigued by the impact of technology on us both as individuals and as a society and am continuing to explore this now.

ADLIB: How can designers be better equipped to explore the possible impact of their designs? What approaches could they adopt as part of their decision making processes?

Mike Harris: I would love it if the workshop helped people explore this question and drum up some new ideas.

Let’s acknowledge that some great processes and methods to address this already. I would say one under-utilised method is the diary study; it is long-term, very natural and user-led, and a skilled researcher can uncover the root of reported behaviour by asking questions. Aside from longer-term and more open research, we can adopt a certain ethos in our decision-making. I for one would like to see product teams adopt some pessimism! I want them to question things beyond the brief and maybe turn some of the ‘metrics’ and ‘KPIs’ on their head; for example, if we want to increase “engagement” – how might we curb addiction?

If we want people to be “empowered to self-diagnose” – how might we avoid them becoming hypochondriacs? If we want to “connect people”, how might we prevent us being ‘alone together’? I heard another good technique to get to the bottom of exactly what we are designing and the ethics behind it, which is to ask at any opportunity: “Why is that good?”

ADLIB: Could you share what you define as ‘unintended design consequences’ in a nutshell?

Mike Harris: All of us in the digital world are designers to some degree – in that we are trying to make something which has an effect on someone else. We are trying to elicit a behavioural outcome – but we cannot control everything. Our own central argument as designers is that humans are complex, and designing for them is not straight-forward. So how can we know what the full effect is from the things we make? All those complexities of humans will produce unintended design consequences.

ADLIB: And finally, can you tell us a bit more about your workshop ‘unintended design consequences’? What can people expect from the session?

Mike Harris: I am going to be realistic here! We have under an hour, and this is a big topic. We will also have so many different perspectives in the room, so it would be remiss if we didn’t try to capture some of that and get people talking. So first off I will set up a short and provoking workshop task for people to do on arrival – hopefully, this helps break the ice too! Then I will spend as little time as possible framing the session and laying out the core argument and the reasons I think we should talk about this as designers.

Then we will do two exercises where groups can explore questions – one of those will be looking at how ethics is expected of practitioners in other professions – and if UX can learn from them. It should be a fun and collaborative session, and hopefully, we will have started an important conversation

Thanks so much for sharing, Mike!

Mike will be running a workshop at UX Bristol 2019. To learn more, please follow this link.

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