We have become addicted to the design of new things. In the digital world, this addiction has reached exponential levels. And that is the problem. If you’re a designer, or have worked in product or service design, you surely know what I’m talking about. For any “new” or fabricated need, our obsession is to find a “new” solution; new user friction ? let’s launch this new app ! For every need or desire : a new app, a new tool, another idea : today there are 1.85M different apps available on the Appstore and 2.56M apps on the Google Play Store1 .
While we are more and more conscious of the limited nature of our physical world, paradoxically, these same rules don’t seem to apply to the digital world. Digital is still a synonym of infinite, a kind of safe haven where everything is possible. As if we could still differentiate the borders between physical and digital… ! As if launching a new digital service had no cost. Surprise : the actual ecological footprint of digital services today nearly doubles the footprint of the air sector2 . What if intangible didn’t mean environmentally neutral after all…
Let’s start the story from the beginning, where I believe it all starts: design.
1. How do we cross the river and get to the other side ?
Design is a homonym: design is the action of creating (with an intention); but it also means drawing, illustrating a concept, representing an idea. The logic is quite obvious: the second definition is consecutive to the first. How could we give form to something if we haven’t thought about the idea in the first place?
Too often, we give solutions to problems that don’t really exist. We create fancy digital products to feed some user activity for whatever reason. Unfortunately, sometimes the thousand solutions we come up with are easier than addressing and solving the real problem. Or (even) worse, we fall into the trap of thinking that all the problems of our society can be solved through digital “magic”3.
Whatever we want to create, we should always start by asking the right questions to identify the problem we are trying to solve. Once we have our problem, we can think of the best way to solve it. And solving it could be creating something new, or not. It could also be doing something differently.
Asking ourselves “how do I cross the river to get to the other side?”, instead of building bridges over and over again.
2. Why have we reduced humans to users?
Design in the digital world has tended to a perfect simplification. In the perfect digital world, humans have become users. The frames of time and space don’t exist anymore. Human relations are reduced to user interactions. Their experiences can be represented by linear customer journeys.
But life is not that simple. We design for humans, not for users. Design isn’t the same thing as UX design. Because when we only think about creating things for users, we tend to forget what happens around them. Take the uber example: an on-demand and fast car service, great user experience indeed.. but what about its impact on city traffic and pollution?
Sticking to user centricity is always easier, because it is only the tip of the iceberg – of a complex and interrelated system of people and their environment. When creating, it is important to always keep in mind this global and interrelated approach. It is what we call “systemic design” : moving from the user to a larger reflection on humans, society and the planet.
3. So, what is it all for?
We should never forget that as designers we stand behind our creations. We decide the problem we want to solve, how to get through it and the best solution. It is up to us, as well, to question what we are used to do and start doing things differently – actually that is good news because requestioning is natural to designers!
All digital services and products have an impact, it depends on us to make them have a positive one. If we start shifting from user centricity to thinking about our global impact on the ecosystem, we are in the right direction.
The bottom line is short, but obviously not simple : value. We innovate to create value. For whom? For the ecosystem, and for all the stakeholders that are part of it. This is not easy, as we saw with the Uber example (and many others): maximising value creation for one of the stakeholders of our ecosystem (car in 2 clicks in 3 minutes) could mean not creating value at all for another (pollution and traffic). Value creation is not linear nor maximizable for everyone. In the end, it is a question of balance and distribution : creating as much value as possible for all the stakeholders.
I like to think about it as a new renovated Bauhaus movement : finding a nuanced balance between technology and design, utility and aesthetic, profits and social and environmental impact. A balance that creates value for all.
At Fabernovel, we have developed an “Impact by Design” methodology : an approach to put systemic design at the core of our creations with the goal of optimising value distribution amongst all stakeholders of an ecosystem. If you have any questions or want to talk to us, email me!