Last month CO.DESIGN published the 10 New Principles of Good Design (thanks Air-bel Center for the link). The article, which is based on a set of industrial design principles from the 1970s, makes for important reading.
According to the author, and concerning commercial digital solutions, 2017 was “a year of reckoning for the design community. UX became a weapon, AI posed new challenges, and debate erupted over once rock-solid design paradigms.” What is most interesting — and wonderful to boot — is that many of the “new” principles we, the ICT4D community, have endorsed for years.
Good Design is Transparent
For example, the article calls for transparency in design. Apparently today, “amid a string of high-profile data breaches and opaque algorithms that threaten the very bedrock of democracy, consumers have grown wary of slick interfaces that hide their inner workings.”
We know that user-centered design is participatory and that we should expose the important parts of digital solutions to our users. We believe in telling our users what we’ll do with their data.
Good Design Considers Broad Consequences and is Mindful of Systems
The article warns that in focusing on the immediate needs of users, user-friendly design often fails to consider long-term consequences. “Take Facebook’s echo chamber, Airbnb’s deleterious impact on affordable housing,” as examples. Not for us: we understand the existing ecosystem, are conscious of long-term consequences and design for sustainability.
A Little History Lesson
Today we have principles for sectors — such as refugees, health and government (US or UK version?); for cross-cutting themes — such as identity, gender and mobile money; for research; and the grand daddy of them all, for digital development.
These principles have been developed over a long time. Fifteen years go I wrote a literature survey on the best practices of ICT4D projects. It was based on the work of then research pioneer, Bridges.org, drawing on a range of projects from the early 2000s.
In my paper, Bridges.org put forward seven habits of highly effective ICT-enabled development initiatives. By 2007 the list had grown to 12 habits — many of which didn’t look that different from today’s principles.
Do We Practice What We Preach?
But if these principles are not new to us, are we practicing them enough? Don’t get me wrong, the ICT4D community has come a long way in enlisting tech for social good, and the lessons — many learned the hard way — have matured our various guidelines and recommendations. But should we be further down the line by now?
The principles mostly outline what we should do, and some work has been done on the how side, to help us move from principles to practice. But I think that we need to do more to unpack the why don’t we aspect.
Consider this data point from a recent Brookings Institute report Can We Leapfrog: The Potential of Education Innovations to Rapidly Accelerate Progress (more on this report in a future post). Brookings analysed almost 3,000 education innovations around the world (not all tech-based, just so you know) and found that:
… only 16 percent of cataloged interventions regularly use data to drive learning and program outcomes. In fact, most innovations share no information about their data practices.
We know that we should be data-driven and share our practices. So what is going on here? Do the project managers behind these interventions not know that they should do these things? Do they not have the capacity in their teams? Do they not want to because they believe it exposes their non-compliance with such principles? Or perhaps they feel data is their competitive edge and they should hide their practices?
Time for ‘Fess Faires?
Fail faires are an excellent way to share what we tried and what didn’t work. But what about ‘Fess Faires, where we confess why we can’t or — shock horror — won’t follow certain principles. Maybe it’s not our fault, like funding cycles that ICT4D startups can’t survive. But maybe we should be honest and say we won’t collaborate because the funding pie is too small.
If fail faires are more concerned with operational issues, then ‘fess faires look at structural barriers. We need to ask these big questions in safe spaces. Many ICT4D interventions are concerned with behavior change. If we’re to change our own behavior we need to be open about why we do or don’t do things.
Good Design is Honest
So, on the one hand we really can pat ourselves on the back. We’ve had good design principles for almost twenty years. The level of adherence to them has increased, and they have matured over time.
On the other hand, there is still much work to be done. We need to deeply interrogate why we don’t always practice our principles, honestly and openly. Only in this way will we really pursue a key new principle: good design is honest.