Design Matters: 2016 Design in Tech Report

For the past two years John Maeda (whose previous roles include Professor at the MIT Media Lab and President of the Rhode Island School of Design) has issued a Design In Tech Report. This influential analysis, which Maeda presents at SXSW and has also been picked up by outlets like Wired, has helped Silicon Valley understand how design is valuable to companies and their customers. It is situated in the context of venture capital, as Maeda is currently Design Partner at VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. However, his attention to industry trends backed with carefully-reported figures has implications for the broader world of tech – including nonprofit and open-source efforts.

Design as a Force for Good

My three biggest take-aways from the 2016 Design in Tech Report (pdf) are that market trends of the past year prove that design:

  • is about more than beauty,
  • has deep ethical implications, and
  • can be a force for economic inclusion.

More than beauty

As a trained designer, I have to grit my teeth to report that "design is more than beauty". The heart of my practice is not visual design but user experience flows, so this take-away seems painfully obvious. Design is about making things that work well for real people. However, it's helpful for me to remember just how much patient explanation can be necessary to communicate the broad range of activities encompassed by design to people who aren't familiar with it – from research, to information architecture, to organizational design and beyond. In that sense, it's gratifying that market trends are bearing out the value of design beyond the simple creation of pretty pictures. How do we spread this understanding further?

Ethical implications

The ethical implications of design are particularly important to consider in the context of the current technology industry, which is heavy on VC-fueled startups. That community is interested in design because design shapes behavior, and is effective at driving "conversions", or sales. From creating addicting products that encourage spending, such as Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, to Dark Patterns that trick users out of unsubscribing from services, irresponsible design harms people. How do we harness this deep understanding of user motivation and behavior for good rather than just for profit?

Economic inclusion

Happily, the report also highlights instances of design being used in ways that benefit society. For example, the UK Government's Digital Service Agency saved £1.7 billion ($2.5 trillion) by re-designing digital services and making them more accessible to all people. Design is an amplifier of values, and can build systems that are more equal or more unequal. The report showcases examples of market success that design for diverse audiences, such as gay social networks and gender-neutral children's toys. How can we help the security and privacy communities meet the needs of a broader group of people?

From Design for Trust to Design for Privacy

The 2016 Design in Tech Report touches on cybersecurity startups delivering network monitoring solutions, but the more encouraging point is that it positions them within a bigger framework of designing for trust. Considering everything from AI interfaces to startups in the so-called sharing economy, the 2016 report states that "design's fundamental impact rests in the ability to engender trust".

I am optimistic that the 2017 Design in Tech Report will address privacy in a more explicit way. The Apple vs FBI case is a turning point for how companies handle customers' data, and with Apple's strong heritage as a design-driven company, other design companies are taking note. I hope that this time next year we will be examining how design leaders within Silicon Valley's VC-culture are shifting their focus away from customer data as a commodity and toward user privacy as a core value proposition.

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