Design for whose social good? / by Peter Last

His social and moral judgement must be brought into play long before he begins to design, since he has to make a judgement, an a priori judgement at that, as to whether the products he is asked to design or redesign merit his attention at all. In other words, will his design be on the side of the social good or not.
— Victor Papanek

Much has been said (often and at great length) about the need for designers to consider whether their work is for "the Social Good". I think this is a good first step for all designers. However, I believe it is woefully inadequate in that it assumes that there is one social good – a monolithic and communal principle shared by everyone. To see how clearly false this is, one simply needs to look at the ongoing public battles about everything from privacy to the economy to the environment. A relevant tech sector-based example is the recent conflict between Facebook and its transgendered members, who felt it was not supportive of the social good to mandate that "real" names be used on the platform. This clash of values highlights both the variety of understandings of what constitutes the public good and the disproportionate and negative impacts that are often felt by marginalized members of society when the public good is dictated by those in power.

It is important, therefore, to clarify what constitutes the social good, in order to be able to subsequently target it with one’s work. There is a theory called Standpoint Theory in feminist epistemology that can help clarify and structure an approach to understanding different social goods. Standpoint Theory posits that an individual’s perception of reality is indelibly determined by their “standpoint” – the total collection of their experiences influenced by factors including (but not limited to) their gender, race, socioeconomic status, and educational background. This suggests that, depending on the situation, there might be pools of commonality in perceptions of the social good, contingent on shared experiences and factors affecting standpoint. By being aware of these standpoints, and by pointedly considering them as factors influencing the goals and perceptions of users, it should be possible to conscientiously target particular social goods. This, in many ways, meshes neatly with the emic approaches of ethnographic research, which advocate adopting the unique perspectives of the subjects of the research to frame the research outcomes.

While this might seem to be a closed case – a problem already solved by existing research techniques – I believe there are gaps that remain. From my own perspective, looking at popular applications and technologies, I see a horrifying breadth of sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination embedded in many of them. In reading about Kathy Sierra’s experience, or the experiences of others who have suffered abuse or discrimination on these platforms that (ostensibly) were created to empower people, I feel at a loss. I have never experienced anything close to what these individuals have experienced, and I can’t even begin to comprehend how it has influenced their perception of simple activities on such systems, let alone how they perceive the social good. Seeking to apply ethnographic research practices to particularly target marginalized groups to ensure that their understanding of the social good is taken into consideration is problematic for several reasons. Clients are unlikely to be willing to pay for research into communities that represent only a small portion of their prospective user base. Moreover, they are unlikely to see value in specifically targeting attributes that they have decided a priori to not be important differentiators. 

Once again, there is a theory from feminist epistemology that can illuminate a path to a solution. A particular interpretation of standpoint theory leads to what Dr. Sandra Harding calls “Strong Objectivity”. In this interpretation, those who are marginalized in society are actually capable of perceiving a more objective reality. This is because they must necessarily be able to interpret the world through the standpoint of the dominant group as well as their own particular standpoint. This means that they can shift their perspective, chameleon-like, or more clearly highlight points of similarity or dissimilarity between standpoints. When you combine that epistemic privilege with design, through co-creation or participatory design that emphasizes or depends on participation of those from marginalized communities, I believe it is possible to identify design approaches and values that embody the highest shared common good across all groups. Moreover, when considering marginalized groups as one dimensional spectrum of what IDEO calls “extreme users”, it is conceivable that the outcome will not be the position of optimal compromise between communities’ concepts of the public good, but will actually offer an emergent perspective that can optimally serve the public good from any individual perspective as well.

I will continue exploring these ideas, but it would be great to get input on these ideas from those with more knowledge and experience than me, whether in feminism (activist or academic or other) or in design.