How to Avoid Unintended Negative Design Consequences

John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Image

Imagine that you have created a successful solution. You are excited and feel a great sense of achievement. You most likely met your goal, engaged your users and made a difference to the business problem (#nicework!).

What about the negative consequences of your solution? Did you consider them?

Let us say that you created the first mobile phone. As depicted in the image above, whilst a mobile phone is convenient, enjoyed by users and commonly used, does it also have negative consequences? For example, has the mobile phone taken away our ability to be present in the moment that we are in?

Our team has begun to discuss and explore the potential unintended negative consequences of solutions. Whilst creating solutions that our clients are happy with and that make a difference to our users is important, we also want to consider our impact on a larger scale. Not to get too sentimental on you but you only live once and your actions determine your impact on the world, including what you design. What impact do you want to have? If you are not Dr. Evil or he who shall not be named (also known as, dare we say it, “Voldemort”), we are guessing it is a good one.

Instagram is a prime example of a product having unintended negative consequences. The Instagram ‘like’ function enables you to show appreciation and love for what people are posting, whether it is selfies, dogs, travel photos, food or videos at the gym. What Instagram did not realise was the consequences that this would have on society. Users started to become competitive and were not satisfied unless they received a certain amount of likes. Why did their best friend get more likes than them? How come they could never get 100 likes? Instagram has started to remove the ability for people to see the number of likes on posts in order to decrease pressure and social competition amongst users (Wagner, 2019). This is an example of an unintended negative consequence being addressed.

Another example of unintended negative consequences was evident in Jurassic Park. The original intention for the park was a good one. The intent was for people to experience what the world was like when the dinosaurs roamed and to have the opportunity to see them in the flesh. If you know the story, you will know that a number of unintended negative consequences took place.

Now, we are not saying that your projects will result in death by dinosaur but we are inviting you to consider the unintended negative consequences of them. The reality is, these mistakes can be made by anyone even with the best intentions in mind.

These are our tips for avoiding unintended negative consequences as a result of your projects.

1. Learn from Others

Look out for unintended negative consequences from other projects, products and solutions in the world and avoid making the same errors in your own projects.

For example, from your knowledge of what took place with Instagram ‘likes’ you could choose not to create a solution that enables users to like things related to specific individuals. As Instagram learned through experience, this creates pressure and social competition between users (Wagner, 2019).

2. Brainstorm Unintended Negative Design Consequences

For each suggested solution to your business problem, consider the potential consequences involved. It may be useful to include a variety of people in this discussion to provide you with a diverse perspective.

For example, a user may predict an unintended negative consequence that your team or the subject matter expert could not forecast because you lack context.

3. Test your Project Outcomes

Pilot your solution in the world to ensure that you test the impact that it has over time. 

  • What behaviour change has come from the solution? 
  • What are users telling you? 
  • Has business performance changed?
For example, if you are training staff on how to be assertive with customers, the results may show that whilst productivity and profitability of the company has increased, customer satisfaction has decreased as a result, which is an unintended negative consequence that may need to be rectified.

That is it for this blog on avoiding unintended negative design consequences. We hope that you can apply the practical tips to your projects. Your impact, no matter how big or small does and will make a difference to society and it is important that this impact aligns with your values.

If you would like to discuss this topic in further detail please do not hesitate to contact our passionate founder Kim via kim@belvistastudios.com or by connecting with her on LinkedIn.

References

Wagner, K. (2019). Instagram Will Remove ‘Likes’ From Posts for Some U.S. Users. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-09/instagram-will-remove-likes-from-posts-for-some-u-s-users

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