Book Review: Ruined by Design

Spring 2021

Design is often touted as the solution to everything (something I'm occasionally guilty of myself). If that's true, then perhaps it's also the problem with everything? That's exactly the argument that Mike Monteiro makes in this essential polemic.

It’s true that many things most of us are not happy with, or which have destructive effects on society, are working precisely as they were designed to work. Can we do something about that? Monteiro argues not only that we can, but that we have a moral duty to do so.

"The goal of this book is to help you do the right thing in environments designed to make it easier to do the wrong thing."

How designers destroyed the world

Is it fair to blame the designers? There are some who are engaged in work which would cross ethical lines for many people, whether that’s designing torture equipment or “dark patterns” to manipulate people’s behaviour. But the audience Monteiro is writing for is people who work at tech companies, designing the code and interfaces which keep us hooked, or which power companies with dubious employment practices.

The decisions these people make every day, and I think it’s safe to extend the same principle to anyone who designs any kind of customer experience, have real impacts on real people. It’s not good enough to hold our noses when what we do, deliberately or accidentally, makes those people’s lives worse.

A really common example in customer experience work is the idea of “edge cases”. As Monteiro says, 

“For years we referred to people who weren’t crucial to our products’ success as ‘edge cases’. We were marginalizing people. We were making a decision that there were people in the world whose problems weren’t worth solving.”

The problem with the philosophy of “move fast and break things” is that sometimes those things are people (e.g. abuse, radicalisation), or democracies (e.g. Facebook and elections), or the planet (e.g. Bitcoin, cryptoart). Designers have a role as gatekeepers, protecting the interests of the people they are designing for:

“If we cannot ask ‘why,’ we lose the ability to judge whether the work we’re doing is ethical. If we cannot say ‘no,’ we lose the ability to stand and fight.”

Monteiro draws an analogy to the medical profession. No matter who pays the bills, or who is making the decision, if a doctor does something unethical then they get fired for it. Is that a fair comparison? Yes, because:

“We’re building complex systems which touch people’s lives….When we do our jobs well, we improve people’s lives. When we don’t, people die.”

The question of who pays the bills is an important one—what drives the obsession with rapid growth that characterises so many Silicon Valley companies? Monteiro argues that much of the blame can be laid at the feet of venture capital investors, and the short term focus that they tend to bring: 

“Short-term decisions are all Silicon Valley seems to care about. We don’t build businesses for the long haul anymore, at least not the venture-backed ones. Those only need to last long enough to make it to their liquidity event so the investors can get their payday.”

It’s important to emphasise that Monteiro is not saying that all of this damage is deliberate, or even wilfully ignorant. He knew the original team at Twitter, one of his most-criticised targets, and he sees a large part of the problem as being a question of diversity:

“They were a decent bunch of guys—and that was the problem. They were a bunch of guys. More accurately, they were a bunch of white guys….Twitter never built in a way to deal with harassment because none of the people designing it had ever been harassed, so it didn’t come up.”

The philosophy of building the product you want to use becomes a big problem when no one on the team represents different perspectives or experiences. Tools like the “veil of ignorance,” and research to build up empathy for different needs is one thing, but ultimately it’s a question of who you hire.

What we can do to fix it

Hopefully by now you’re worried and depressed. Is there anything we can do to fix this mess that we’ve created? The first step is to recognise that it is up to all of us to take responsibility for fixing things, not by trying to salve our conscience through offsetting outside work, but in our day jobs:

“We need you to work ethically during that day job much more than we need you working with that nonprofit evenings and weekends.”

In extreme cases, particularly when the leadership of an organisation is resistant to change, the only realistic option is to move somewhere new:

“You can change a company that’s afraid of change. You can change a company that finds change uncomfortable. You can’t change a company that doesn’t want to change, especially when leadership doesn’t want to change.”

If you’re hired to be a designer, or any other role for that matter, then you’re being hired as a complete package. They get your skills, but they also get the ethical framework that you work within.

“You only need to get hired for a job once. After that, you get to do it. No, you have to do it.”

Monteiro argues that to understand any business, and in particular to understand the ethics of a business, you have to understand what its goal is, and how it makes money. If its goal is to make money, then you need to get out.

Understanding the impact of your work, as we’ve seen, is really important. Diversity is an important part of that, and so is research, and listening to feedback:

“…beware of someone who doesn’t want you to look behind the curtain, kick the tires, and have their assumptions tested.”

You can’t go it alone

All of that might sound like a complicated way of getting yourself fired, and perhaps the most important part of Monteiro’s promised hopefulness is that it depends on designers forming a community around ethics.

“I can’t solve it. You can’t solve it. If we band together, we have a chance.”

The solution, if there is one, demands a combination of informal community, professional groups, and regulation. Most of all though, it demands everyone who could conceivably think of themselves as a designer (and I think that should be defined a lot more widely than it tends to be) to accept the responsibility for working ethically.

“For too long, we’ve treated the job as if we were servants. We did what we’re told. We followed orders. We didn’t ask questions. We may have rolled our eyes once in a while when something didn’t seem right, but we did it anyway. We behaved as if we had no agency and no say in how the job was done.”

Whether or not you end up agreeing with Monteiro’s assessment of the world of Silicon Valley, I think this book is essential reading for anyone whose decisions impact on real people. That’s almost everyone who’s likely to be reading this magazine.

It’s a brave book, and an angry one, and a little bit sweary, and it should change the way you think about your role and its impact on the world.

Stephen Hampshire

Client Manager
TLF Research