What the pandemic has taught designers?

Originally published in the ‘Product Design Magazine’, #6, Poland

Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes [1]
― Christopher Bullock

Examining the year 2020 objectively, one must admit that it surely is an interesting year. It seems to confirm the hypothesis that the only fixed things in life “is Death and Taxes” — though, considering the recent scientific leaps taken in cryogenics, one can start scratching out “death” from that equation.

Until recently, we all had a considerably comfortable living. Having a sense of professional stability, one could plan a holiday in enjoyable surroundings, set up a dinner date with friends in a close-by restaurant, go see the movies, or schedule a fitness class in a favorite gym. We felt a sense of security, knowing more often than not, what tomorrow will bring. Present-day events have proven to us yet again, that the only constant in a human life, is change itself. Havoc wreaked by the pandemic, has greatly impacted all areas of everyone’s life: business, politics, or even social order… One could go-on forever listing all aspects of ordinary life that has been affected, but the truth of the matter is, that nature itself has said “halt”. Now, we must all leave our comfort zone, not as individuals, but as groups, localities, nations and human beings — and that is a pretty big deal for mankind worldwide.

Just consider, the anxieties you had the last time you had to move out of your house, change your job, pass an important exam, or face an emergency that suddenly caught you off guard. If you can still remember those jitters, jitters that accompany everyone leaving his comfort-zone, consider that today and in the last few months, almost 7.8 bln[2] people worldwide SIMULTANEOUSLY experience similar discomfort. Can you see where I’m going with this? There is a common communal and global sense of discomfort while mankind is drowning in the overflowing reservoirs of stress and exhaustion resulting in ever present frustration. No sense of stability and little faith in everything coming back to the way it was, creates fear and dread of what is to come. But we must remember, what has been will never be again. We are at the spear-tip of a global transformation; whose main drivers are social isolation and constrains. Drivers that we as people have learned to ignore and move away from, leaving us now, with a feeling of abandonment and dereliction. In a sense, our everyday lives have to be quickly adjusted on many different levels. Changing our daily habits or substituting them with new ones results in generating a whole new way of life. In many cases, we have to abandon the things we love and cherish. The familiar concept of “what reality is” has been instantly pulled from under our feet. By adapting, we not knowingly changed the way we see and think, and all things have had to change together with our perception of how we now see them.

What consequences this change will have? We yet still have to wait to find out, though some trends and expectations are beginning to take shape. We are beginning to shape and put together more and more bold conclusions and prognosis for the future, but it is still too early to call them anything more than hypotheses or suppositions. However, one thing is certain, we as digital creators, ought to change the way we think about design.

Innovation? It’s already here.

We can boldly state that this year, despite its difficulties, is a year of innovation, and certainly an accelerator of change resulting from new social needs.

The formal definition of innovation states that innovation is the result of all activities of scientific, technical, organizational, financial, and commercial nature that actually leads or was intended to lead to the implementation of changes in products, processes, organization and/or marketing[3]. Personally, I prefer a less formal definition, but one that is more digestible — without the needless scientific fluff — innovation is not the reinvention of a wheel, but figuring out where to place it next.

If anybody here has trouble with the concept of design humility, reflect on this: It took us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage.

― Wiliam McDonough

Today we must re-learn to place the new center of gravity at the bottom of the Maslov pyramid [4] as in the last 9 months, we as people, have shifted with our needs from the self-actualization layer (in the esthetic as well as cognitive areas) towards the lowest and most basic layers, where basic needs, safety needs and social belonging are of the upmost importance.

We try to make up the harsh consequences of long periods of isolation with tools that for a long time have been accessible to us. Video streaming apps and platforms, not so long ago used only at work, today, help us reach out to the people we can no longer have physical contact with. In some cases, video streaming can be used as a tool to monitor the sick or to aid the ones that have been cast aside, fulfilling the basic safety and social needs. By video chat we seem to simply shorten the distance without changing where we really reside.

Thanks to technology, remote communication, and universal Internet access, the dynamic growth of the e-health industry no longer only allows basic medical interviews and advice over the phone, but also more complex activities. Such as calibrating and remote fitting of hearing aids[5] for people, who cannot reach their audiologist (due to their old age or long distance to the nearest healthcare facility — which in the USA might for many be a real problem). All these solutions are not the sweet fruit of the pandemic, they are old solutions to old problems of the old world. Mainly focused on the ever-present barriers for the elderly or people with disabilities, we have already tried to adjust the physical world to the respective needs.

Physical restrictions, in general, can have many reasons and scopes, but as a general rule of thumb, it’s the limitations that pull us towards a better solutions. Today a paralyzed person can achieve a lot more in his life than ever before. Rediscovering of the world, thanks to services like Google Earth, can give an impression of a real walk through the farthest corners of the world. Virtual museums (also made by Google: Art & Culture) can give almost anyone, the possibility of intimately knowing the uncounted masterpieces from around the world. These new avenues of experiencing the outside world are fondly used not only by people with disabilities, but by people struggling with agoraphobia or social isolation as well.

There are plenty of comparable solutions on the market. It is worth noting, however, that even if their basic intention was not to support accessibility, they can significantly improve the quality of any human life. The basic concept of those solutions is inclusion itself, and only the context of use can determine their true value giving them a particular significance.

Services starting with a big “e‘’

Even today, without getting off the couch, we can create a world management center, where everything could be instantly grasped. Movie theatres has reemerged as Netflix, music venues as Spotify, books as Kindle, restaurants have become Uber Eats and shopping is now more commonly known as Amazon. All of it, delivered to your doorstep. Comfort, convenience and accessibility is definitely on one hand, but what’s on the other? Will technological advances lock us all up within the proverbial four walls?

For years social habits and lifestyles have been evolving. The pace of everyday life is ever more overwhelming, so in order to gain ever so little of the precious time, we limit our activities to what is available instantly and accessible without leaving our home. The popularity of e-services is gradually increasing, meeting, yet also limiting, our needs in the form of a limited supply. Furthermore, we are constantly faced with the ever-growing number of endless restrictions.

Today we are faced with an economic and social crisis, both being the direct effects of the pandemic. Luckily, looking at this situation objectively, the current technological solutions give us the possibility of the so-called continuation. Many contemporary professions can still work remotely. E-commerce is currently experiencing its renaissance, as a large number of sellers have moved their business to the online world. Educational institutions, probably for the first time in recorded history, were forced to switch to the distance learning platforms, although no one had previously prepared educators to conduct e-classes. Social media supports virtual relationships and are neatly complementing the e-entertainment business. Lastly, the very fact, that even medicine has recreated itself in the form of e-medicine proves that this year has completely changed the importance of all e-services.

The ethics of design

Since we, the peoples, more and more often use various on-line services (until recently out of sheer convenience, now also out of need), let us consider for a moment the responsibilities and ethics of design, especially in the field of services. Do they have any consequences? Where lays the responsibility for them?

As one can prove the difficulty of giving a straight or unequivocal answer in the “who is responsible for a death resulting from a gunshot” example, assigning credit and/or guilt can be a strenuous task. Who is to blame? The person who invented the weapon? He, who made it? Or the one who used it? Even Albert Einstein, considered during his lifetime as a pacifist, after writing a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, out of concern for the security of the American people, in a way, initiated the nuclear arms race that resulted in the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima[6]. And although his intentions were good, the devastating effects and millions of deaths have become part of modern history. Of course, one could ask, how is designing products or services (both in digital and analog world) similar to creating an atomic bomb. Debating this, one must recall the content of one of the Black Mirror episodes “Arkangel”[7], it turns out that every product or service, even if made with the best intentions, may hit us back with twice the force.

The year 2020 revealed to all, what was hidden under the corner of the carpet, the corner that for decades we have swept all uncomfortable things under, and no one ever bothered with. And although what shape our new world will take depends only on us, it is difficult to say where the limit of design responsibility lies and whether it can be clearly delineated at all. One thing is certain, inclusiveness should become a standard in designing all kinds of products and services. In addition to designing for a very specific target group, as designers, we must also think about the context of use, which may turn out to be completely different from the one we originally had in mind.

Designer, read, remember, and pass on:

Inclusiveness is the new bedrock of design.

References

[1] Christopher Bullock, “The Cobler of Preston, a farce. As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincoln’s-Inn-Field”, Fifth Edition. Bladon, London, 1767. p. 21.

[2] World population, Wikipedia

[3] „Oslo Manual: Guidelines for Collecting and Interpreting Innovation Data”, 3rd Edition; OECD/European Communities 2005

[4] A. H. Maslow, „Classics in the History of Psychology; A Theory of Human Motivation” (1943); Originally Published in Psychological Review, 50, 370–396

[5] “Remote Care” service, Oticon

[6] Manhattan Project, Wikipedia

[7] „Black Mirror”, S4E2 („Arkangel”), raises the issue of excessive parental control.

Product Designer with a strong focus on Inclusive Design

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