What Constitutes a Better Product?

What does it mean to “help businesses make better products”? It could mean making the operator of a system faster or more efficient at performing a task. It often means helping a business sell more of a product by making the product more attractive (aesthetically and through increased ease of use). When concerning itself with novel technology reaching market-readiness, design can mean helping a business to make this new technology understandable and user-friendly.

Design touches nearly every aspect of life and so the responsibilities designers hold in some ways are enormous. Designer Victor Papanek famously wrote, “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them.”[] So, when a designer works on a product that will be mass-manufactured, using materials that are nonrecyclable or even toxic, to solve a problem the designer didn’t think needed solving, does that designer have an obligation to raise his concerns or moral and ethical standpoints?

There are other designers voicing similar views on the role of their profession in society.

In 2000, thirty-three designers renewed their support of a 1964 manifesto titled “First Things First,” which calls for a change of priorities in the design profession away from a marketing-led application. Here is one the central tenets:

There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social, and cultural crises demand our attention.[182]

The aspiration of some designers to address moral and ethical considerations in their work becomes ever more important in the context of emerging technologies.

The personal computer, the Web, and the smartphone have had a deep impact on lifestyles and culture. It used to be that to carry out your banking you had to visit or call a branch and fill out paperwork; now you can access your accounts from wherever you happen to be and manage your finances at the push of a few virtual buttons. It used to be that to communicate with others around the world, you had to write a letter and send via multiple postal services or make expensive long-distance telephone calls; now we can talk to and see each other in real time, practically anywhere on the globe. Not long ago, to find our way around in an unfamiliar place, you had to ask locals or come prepared with a map and the skills to read it; now you simply press a button on your smartphone, and a small dot indicates your location and turn-by-turn directions are provided to guide you to your destination.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which technology has changed the way we live — in just the past 20 years. Nevertheless, it is important to see the full spectrum of each of these changes. Along with these new possibilities, we now also live in a world with the ever-present threat of online fraud, different behaviors around personal and intimate relationships (for better or worse), and the idea that data about where we’ve been at what times can be accessed and utilized by governments and others. These are just some examples of less-obvious side effects of technology that should be considered during development.

An extreme example for such considerations is the operating limit placed on commercially available GPS systems. To prevent the systems from being used in the operation of guided missiles, the chipsets switch themselves off if they are being operated in excess of a certain speed and above a specific altitude.

If you believe futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, the rate of technological progress is accelerating exponentially, meaning that the next 100 years of progress will actually be more like 20,000 years of progress when measured at today’s rate.[]

This idea is profound, and Kurzweil spends a lot of time explaining just how big the difference between an “intuitive linear” view is and such an exponential one. He argues that future technological feasibilities are often underestimated in predictions, because people intuitively assume the rate of progress would remain constant.

Given how lifestyles, societies, and business have changed in just the past 20 years alone as a result of the rise of computing technology, this outlook on technological progress begs the question about what the impact will be of what is yet to come. There are concerned voices about this, such as that of Bill Joy, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems. He believes that the technologies of the twenty-first century, such as robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, pose a new class of threat to the world.[]

Joy is mostly concerned about the possibility of self-replication, and the small-scale nature of emerging technologies. This can become a threat because potentially harmful technologies are more easily accessible to individuals and small groups without attracting wider attention. Other points of discussion are the ethics of stem-cell research, what degree of technologically enabled enhancement is fair in competition sports, and whether the advances in genetics will lead to a new kind of social divide.

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