Subverted Design

Making sense of our shifting priorities.

I’ve been at the Corporate Design game for a while now. I’ve been a Web Designer, an Interaction Designer, a UX/UI Designer, a Product Designer, a Lead, a Manager — hell, I was even a Full Stack Designer at one point.

The way I’ve perceived my role at any given time, including the titles, have generally mirrored what our industry has decided is right. As with anything, that’s evolved over time.

When I was just starting out, I saw the user’s experience as something sacred. It was my hallowed responsibility as a Designer to keep that experience “pure.” I’d frequently go to bat for The User, which often meant long arguments with other stakeholders.

The experience I was fighting for included everything from visual polish, to intuitive IA, to never including dark patterns or shady gamification that wouldn’t be serving my users. It all felt so important.

Fast forward to 2018. Designers have since become immensely valued within the tech world. Industry leaders have built a deep appreciation for design thinking, practices, and processes. We are well compensated. Stakeholders’ confidence in Designers has grown, so we don’t have to fight quite as hard as we used to. We’re included in high level decision-making (a “seat at the table” if you will). It’s all pretty great.

But alongside this shift in prominence, I noticed a new narrative gaining steam: What makes a Designer valuable is their pragmatism and ability to achieve company goals.

Today, Designers who are too idealistic and push for things to be “perfect” for their users — sometimes making them more difficult to work with — are perceived as Junior. As a Designer becomes more Senior, they also become more realistic and business-minded, or so the idea goes. These “Senior Designers understand that a company is a company, and that the money paying your salary has to come from somewhere.

It was very easy to buy into this, and I did so wholeheartedly. My changing priorities were just a sign of my becoming more experienced, right? What’s more, this change in priorities came with a noticeable shift in how others treated me. The way I was thinking now aligned more closely with PMs and leaders, and that garnered respect. Respect feels good and is generally an indicator that you’re on the right track.

So on the one hand, we had a set of priorities that came with prestige and aligned with what the industry saw as important. On the other, we could be framed as inexperienced or childish. It wasn’t a hard choice.

With that choice, project goals became increasingly centered around company needs rather than user needs. Our language changed to better communicate with stakeholders. Words like "polish” and “value” gave way to “adoption” or “engagement” or “platform cohesion.” It’s laughably easy to rationalize that these things are good for users too.

I still cared about the people using my product, but my perspective and responsibilities had shifted dramatically… and I wasn’t the only one.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? Design is more important and respected than ever, which means we have more agency to affect change. But at the same time, our priorities have been subverted, pushed towards corporate benefit over human benefit. It’s hard to reconcile those things.

15 years ago, being a UX Designer meant that your top priority was usability. You had less clout, which meant you had to fight harder for your work. Your role was smaller in scope, which meant you didn’t have as much influence over high-level discussions like company strategy. But it was… clean.

Design’s position in 2018 might be more lucrative and impactful, but unless it comes with the right set of priorities, that impact can be negative. It’s led to an array of products that optimize for engagement and stickiness over value and clarity.   It’s how we got shit like this:

LinkedIn mislabels and disguises links to trick their users into inviting new friends to the network.
Facebook lowers attrition by playing with your heart strings.
Etsy tries to pressure you into buying a comic sans necklace.
Airbnb does the same with its listings.

None of these interfaces are concerned with what people need. They’re designed quite deliberately to optimize the bottom line, and they do this at people’s expense—by exploiting pressure, trickery, and even emotional blackmail. Design is an extremely powerful tool. By agreeing to use it for these purposes, we’re becoming part of the problem.

Are we the baddies?

The tech industry in general tends to overestimate its virtue and Product Designers are no different. Even those of us who are skeptical about tech generally buy into the belief that at least we’re making the world a better place, as if we exist separately from the system within which we work.

But we don't — we’re at the heart of the system. We’re coddled with a comfortable feedback loop that rewards business thinking and distances us from our original values day by day. I don’t think the interfaces above were concocted in an evil lair. They came from people, just like us, who bought into the idea that doing a good job meant adopting these new priorities.

We need to ask ourselves some important questions. Are we using these new tools that we’ve been given — this new clout — to create positive impact? Or, now that we’re enjoying the accolades and wealth, have we become complicit with a system that cares more about money than it does human beings?

I’ve been thinking about this shift a lot recently. Sure, there’s a spectrum between design justice warrior and corporate henchman. But even with the best intention, one by one, we’re beginning to fall closer to the latter. I’m trying to understand how anyone managed to convince us that becoming more senior meant caring about users less.

There’s something to be said about becoming more experienced and pragmatic. It’s not inherently negative. But the more experienced you become as a person, the more you realize that company needs shouldn’t outweigh human needs. These companies and products have so much impact on society and, as we’ve seen time and time again, that impact is often at odds with what people really need.

I’m not naive — I know that corporations don’t prioritize user needs unless those needs already align with company goals. I also accept the limited agency of any given designer to effect change within an organization. But I don’t accept that it isn’t our responsibility.

We can be the solution

As I’ve said, this is systemic and industry-wide. We choose eyeballs over user safety. We optimize for clicks. We reinvent buses and bodegas and act like we’re saving the world instead of just making our shareholders money.

In an ideal world, products would be made ethically by default. But this isn’t an ideal world and big revolutions start out small. I think Designers are really well suited for the task.

Let’s look back at that Designer stereotype we’ve outgrown: an idealistic, bull-headed perfectionist who fixates on the experience and ignores everything else. Obnoxious, to say the least. 

This wasn’t the most productive way of making sure things were user-friendly, and I’m glad to have seen our profession mature, but we’ve lost something along the way. We lost it slowly and subtly, so much so that we barely noticed it happening. On the surface, our mission never really changed. We are still considered champions of the user’s experience. The fact that it’s held less and less weight for us over time hasn’t changed that.

These gripes make sense coming from us. Not only that, but as Designers we generally have the leeway to champion them.

If you look at a Product Manager’s performance reviews, you’ll see they’re often inextricably tied to metrics. Make this number go up. Now make it go up more. Make that other one go down. Ok, here’s your bonus. 

PMs are on the hook for making sure that product releases push the business in the right direction. If a product or feature doesn’t perform adequately, they’ve failed. There can be very real consequences. These incentive structures are why I view this problem as systemic rather than the fault of any individual. All the same, the result is a large contingent of employees that essentially have to focus on meeting business needs. Sales, Data, Product, and many other departments are all formally beholden to these numbers.

Conveniently, Designers now enjoy a similar level of influence without the same constraints. If measured at all, our success metrics are usually fuzzier: NPS trends, user surveys, or long term retention. This gives us more leeway to challenge a given product’s goals and rebalance the trade-offs to the user’s benefit — if we choose to.

Products will always be made through compromise. But in a world where Designers are focused on balancing business needs against user needs, while other stakeholders are focused exclusively on business needs, these compromises will almost always favor the business.

In this world — who is supposed to be standing up for users? Who’s supposed to be creating friction for shady decisions? If it isn’t a PM’s responsibility, or an Engineer’s, or ours, then whose is it? We are the people building these products! We need a stronger mechanism for prioritizing human needs.

That used to be us. It can be us again.

So let’s fucking do it.

Thanks for reading! If this resonated, show some love via or share

This article initially included a few steps we can take to do better in the future, and how to pick the right companies to work for, but it was getting a bit too long.

I sent out Subverted Design (Part 2) on my design newsletter.
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Special thanks to Kathy, Briana, Helen, Owen, Tara, Earl, Skyler, and Fabian for looking this over and removing all my commas.

Joel led Product Design at DigitalOcean. Now he makes GitHub.
He doesn't write often, but when he does, he makes it count.

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